I am in the business of listening. Two days a week I settle into my chair in an act of mundane surrender. For the most part I am here to listen. But sitting like a slowly softening pat of butter will not do nicely. Like trying to meditate, listening is fraught with trivial and pressing distractions. I get carried off by my own concerns, the day-to-day detritus, things I’ve forgotten to do, mistakes it’s too late to repair, my knee that’s hurting again, the flash of the iPad on the desk with a message from my daughter.
Today as you talk, I feel your desperate need for an answer. Can you really leave your ageing mother, your autistic sister, and finally live on your own? I leave you as I weigh up the options on your behalf. Moving into territory that can be none of my business, waylaid from paying you attention by my own fear of your seemingly impossible situation. I must come back to you, to what you’re saying, come back to hearing you. And just as I do, your tongue slips, and instead of saying you’ll finally be able to leave when it’s your wedding day, a tired old family story, you say funeral. And we’re jolted awake, conscious, our eyes meeting, yours large and dark, mine smaller and light, that you’re dying there in that crumbling house caring for ingrates. And your decision comes closer to taking care of itself, finally fuelled by fires that have so far been hidden, unheard.
The fear of hearing
I am easily seduced by shiny new things to do with my interpersonal problems. I read and write about them in helpful lists in the relationships section. Ten things to say when your loved one is grieving. How to talk so your child will listen. List after list of what to say and the words to say it. Terrible and troubling things happen to people and we’re meant to pay them attention. But which part of what they tell us will we give our attention to? How will we translate what they say into something we can respond to? What will we listen for?
When I’m hell bent on discovering what to listen for, it’s a good sign that there’s something I’m being told that I just can’t bear to hear. All that wide-open space in the person in front of me, all that terrible space inside myself yawning cavernous and crying out for a map. But the map is not the territory, as anyone who ever tried to follow a map knows. The map is a stick-figure drawing. Things look so possible on a map, it’s just a few centimetres from here to there, along a blue line, over some green circles, avoiding the red dashes of traffic, and then there’s the water. But when you get out there, there are dense shrubs that go on forever, rocky ground, dead ends and giant hairballs of debris. It’s always further than you think and never what you expected. But if I want to get there, to the water, I can’t settle for the map, I have to pay attention to what’s in front of me, right now.
The picture of a sound
Words come out of mouths and make pictures. Pictures of rooms I’ve never been in and people I’ve never seen. Dream pictures and paintings of distress, mosaics of ecstasy, the colour of a feeling, the dark of an oval at night and the benches that line its sides. I can see your client, sitting on one of those benches, delivering a blowjob he never meant to offer.
These pictures emerge in my own mind, they come from me, but they are also given to me. You send them to me, and as they pass through the grid of my understandings, they skew slightly, or change colour. And sometimes, as they travel through my mind, the edges of them open out and we can sit back and look at them together.
You have taken me, in the tree-shaded cool of my consulting room, to the sun porch, almost an outbuilding of your childhood home in Fremantle, where, in a moment of unspeakable cruelty and selfishness, you were broken. And now, over the years we have talked together, I have learned to see the world as you see it, the dirty, scavenging pigeons, the garbage, crying children, the balloons swallowed by trusting sea turtles, asbestos and bottomless corporate greed. I’ve learned to see this picture, like a magic eye, of only what is most terrible and hopeless. In listening to you, I can see another world. Your way of seeing has become a trickster perspective shift that comes over me at the most unexpected of moments. And of course, this way of seeing I’ve learned from you is also mine, with edges that overlap at times with my own capacity for horse-blinkered unhappiness.
Happiness has become a word that no longer functions as a descriptor of experience, but instead stands in for the experience itself, holding the promise of something transcendent in a hard tight bubble of noisy plastic. The word has become a command, a single-note aphorism, an edict. Freedom is perhaps its only real competitor for the crown of inverted, perverted or wildly diminished linguistic meaning. Once I think the word ‘happiness’ must have been a punctuation, a tiny celebration; now it’s a call to arms. Now we’re encouraged to hear it larded with our own failings and the biliousness of our ongoing sadnesses and angers, the imperfections of our responses to the world.
The word happiness now splits me in two when I hear it, the one part watches my self, examines me for appropriate levels of joy; the other, the watched one, feels the sting of the gaze of the fix-it self who is forever tidying up and improving the home of my mind and body. And I rebel. Don’t talk to me about fucking happiness, I say. I’ve had enough of happiness. I’m not listening.
You’re not listening to me.
He had his hearing tested, she said. He hears just fine. He’s just not listening to me.
A story can come out pressured, previously canned and reheated. If you’re the listener, there is a feeling of incremental annihilation, a slow erasure of your personhood as you witness the wall of words that’s being built at such a pace and to such a great height and with so little mortar that it keeps toppling over on your head. This is dead listening. It is a defeat of connection in favour of ingestion. The forced taking in of another’s desire to have the world reflected just as they would like it to be.
Over wine we meet to talk about the death of your mother. I don’t know what happens, you say, when we get together, but I just can’t stop talking, and I never hear how things are for you.
And I know then that I’ve opened up a place between us, a listening place, but that it has become a kind of dumping ground after I’ve left it completely bare of myself. In sensing somehow not just your need to talk, but also your need to be heard in a particular way, I have made myself almost too absent to respond, and instead I’ve become a simple receptacle for your thoughts. I’ve morphed into your ideal lost mother, taking in your words, erasing myself so I can regurgitate them in acceptable predigested form. This is listening like a mother bird listens, for the cries of hunger, before she goes off to find something to quiet them. I need to put my hat in the ring, as the saying goes, in order to really be part of the action.
It’s hard to listen to you
I’m at a café with my new friend Helen. We’re talking about listening and about the capacity of some people to induce the most mind-numbing boredom. She mentions her fear of being stuck in conversation with a truly boring person. We wonder together about whether listening well changes the nature of the stories we hear. She says yes, that when she became a journalist she had to change how she listened and how she responded to what she heard. She had to earn to contain her self, to bracket her own identifying reactions (I think I know what you mean!) and instead to ask truly useful questions. And then, she said, I was almost never bored by anyone.
It’s so much more difficult truly to listen to someone whose experience I think I share. Their words light up a Christmas tree of memory lights, sending me along branches of my own thoughts and feelings, far away from what they’re saying and into my own past worlds. To listen faithfully, I need to know the texture and taste of my own stories. I need to have explored the territory of my recollections so I don’t have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back to what you’re saying when your words inadvertently send me down a rabbit hole to my other lives. So when my story overlaps with your story, I can see that the pages of mine are green and the pages of yours are a different colour altogether. I have to be willing to surrender my story completely to yours when I listen to you. And to do that I need to have read it before, or at least to have the capacity to put it carefully aside to explore at another time.
Words can just wander out from the depths, covered in slime and old bad feeling. Set off by the felt sense of another time, another person, summoned by an irresistible compulsion finally to be uttered out loud. There’s no point in hanging onto these sorts of words, however tastily painful they are to hold and touch once you’ve heard them. Hoarding them only tucks them safely away, mouldering and protected from the opportunity to dewhisker the present of the past, old hurts from new ones, you from my mother, me from your father.
You, leaving, tell me when I ask you if there’s someone else, There are a lot of women interested in me, you know. You’re not trying to be especially hurtful telling me this, just lost in yourself, speaking to someone from long ago, cutting like an unwatched knife cuts, startlingly and without malice. And when I want to hang onto your words, to remember them forever, this is for me, I’m using them to bolster some unstumped corner of my heart, I’m not listening to you when I hang on that tightly to what you’ve just said to me, just packing your words away, like nuts in the corner of a squirrel’s mouth, to chew over later.
But when one day you stop speaking to me altogether, these phrases come back on a kind of loop tape, stand-ins for a real conversation with you that never happens.
Please listen to me
I’m not sure that all deep listening is love, but I am sure that there is no real love without profound listening. Love is a presence that opens a silent delirious space where we can be awake, more open to the edges of our awareness and more accepting of our limitations, where shit gets separated from shinola. A place where I can be happy for you even when you don’t give me what I want. A space where you can vibrate with the witherings of your day and know that I can’t wait to hear all about them.
Yesterday I told you I had three dilemmas I wanted to solve before the new year, decisions that had been plaguing me for some time, one petty and two grave. You pulled up your chair, I had my cup of tea. I spilled the contents of my various indecisions and you appeared to collect them carefully, to display them for me, not so much in order, but in arrangements you heard as you listened. You checked these new (to me) arrangements against my understanding, and gave me room to readjust them if they weren’t quite right. You didn’t so much listen to my stories as listen for them. Picking up the ones I dropped like tacks that might pierce my feet later, pointing out the ones I was silently painting over. You didn’t once speak to me about what you wanted me to do, what each decision might mean for you, for us, you stayed doggedly with me, your attention evenly suspended. And in just shy of an hour I had my decisions, in a neatish row, unexpected, firmish, satisfying.
There still appear to be no real cures for the problems of living, but there is listening and that’s no small thing.