Tuesday, November 01, 2005


El posted three stories that people have shared with her over the years. For me, encountering people and listening to their stories is a major part of my life. Perhaps that’s the only thing that is really certain in life.

Ursula LeGuin writes: "The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” That is exactly what happens with me when I encounter someone and take the time to listen—really listen—to their story. I never try to guess in advance what the story will be or where it will lead to. Often I have been moved to compassion by the story of another; a few times I have been repulsed by a person’s story. Seldom have I ever been left flat by a story someone has told me.

For example, when I met A, I was myself in a new aspect of my life. I had happened upon a group that played Bluegrass music, something I new little about. Perhaps eighty people would gather on Wednesdays, break up into smaller groups, and jam. There might be five or six groups playing different songs in the same room.

I had played guitar and sung 60s style folk music for many years. I had even sung some Bluegrass songs without recognizing it genre. So I began attending these Bluegrass jams, not bringing my guitar or participating, but coming as watcher/listener. A introduced herself to me the first night I was there. It amazed me that the next time I saw her she remembered my name. I didn’t know her name. Each time I was present, she would come by my table and say that she was glad I was there.

About two months after I began attending these Wednesday jams, I saw A moving from table to table among us listeners. She would sit down for a few moments or minutes and then move to the next table. By the time she reached me, it was apparent she had something to say but folks hadn’t the time or inclination to listen. I had both, so when she sat at my table, I just listened.

A’s story wasn’t complex. She had turned the ripe old age of 30 about three months before. It was an age which, to her, meant the end of fun and adventure. She wanted to settle down. One of the professional guitarists in the group was her boyfriend—well, “sometimes” boyfriend. She had dreams of settling down with this guy and raising a family, even though he was eleven years younger than she. He, of course, wasn’t a party to her dreams and had broken up with her just before Christmas and again the day before Valentine’s Day and again that night. She was traumatized by the on-again, off-again relationship.

As we often do, that part of our story which seems most important to us at the moment actually affects us the least. As A shared the rest of her story, I realized that this was true with her, too. Her favorite uncle had just died of AIDS. She had not known that he had AIDS until his final hospitalization. His death and his final request of her were harrowing for her. Her uncle asked her to care for his only grandchild, a ten year old girl, whose parents had been killed in an auto accident a few years previously. Her uncle had been the child's guardian and he wanted A to take over that function. A, who loved her cousin as if she were the child’s mother, had thus been thrown into a battle for custody of the child—a battle she feared she lacked the legal resources to win.

The third element of A’s story was that she was just about to lose the house in which she was living. Put much more simply than A told it, she had inherited the house from her grandmother, but an adopted son of her grandmother was contesting the will and she had not the legal resources to fight it.

After hearing A’s story, I asked her what she needed from me. She replied, “Nothing. I just need to crash.” I admit that I had no idea what she meant by “to crash.” But before I could ask her to explain further, she got up and headed for another table. I later saw her leave the bar and take off on the back of a motorcycle. I had listened to her story, but did not understand her need.

A few weeks later I had another conversation with A—but that’s another story, a much longer story.

I have had careers as a therapist, pastor, social worker, and—not the least in the context of listening to people—as a bar tender. I have heard the stories of dozens of people. One never knows when destiny will introduce us to a new person with a profound story. Sometimes the best we can do is to truly listen to that person’s story. Being a “good listener” enables folks to tell their stories; it also may be the most important healing element we can offer anyone. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t. But it is always a beginning.


  1. Listening is something I've always loved doing. I think it might have something to do with my love of history. It is great to hear about people's lives. One type of place that I use to do this alot was at the ski slopes. I would sit and watch the skiiers go down the mountain and usually someone would come to talk to me. I think many times it does have to do with healing. Most of the time people just want to vent, they already know what to do. Thanks for the link:)

  2. El, I hadn’t thought of it until you mentioned it, but perhaps my love of history, too, has something to do with being a good listener. I perceive history as an ongoing story with many actors; that’s how I listen to other people’s stories.