Listening is easy when you want hear what the other person wants to say. Listening is not so easy if you’re Jodi trying to talk with Stutz about some tough news. Jodi has known Stutz for three wild and thrilling months, during which they discovered they’re both rebels and soulmates, with new tattoos to prove it: a chain around the right ankle, wings over each ankle bone. This morning she went to the Health Department clinic and came back with the news that she’s pregnant and tested positive for syphilis.
She said, “Stutz, I can’t stand it. I feel horrible, like scum.”
He said, “It’s not horrible. I’ll pay for the procedure and one shot of penicillin will take care of it.” Stutz is 42 and has been through this kind thing before. Jodi is 28, never been pregnant, never considered syphilis, and has been prone to catastrophes.
She said, “You don’t have a job. Your next gig isn’t for two months. What are you saying, you’ll sell your guitar, sell your Harley? And what if I don’t want your goddamn ‘procedure’?”
He said, “I could fix the Harley in one day, if the guys’d just let me borrow the tools. It’s just a rod jammed, I know it. One day, you watch.”
Listening is not so easy when you discover the rebel you’re in love with rebelled against a chaotic, mixed-race Creole family from the Bayou, and you rebelled against the numbness of Florida’s white suburban conformity. Listening is not so easy when he’s high on marijuana because that’s what blunts his nightmares and flashbacks, so blunted that he doesn’t realize you’re trying to negotiate a tough decision. Listening is not so easy when you’re terrified and he’s mellow.
What makes people hard to listen to? Gaps—some we’re aware of, others we deny. Gaps in gender, generations, language, experience, education, emotional state, illness, agendas, and expectations. The more gaps and the wider the gaps and the less aware we are of the gaps, the harder it is to listen well.
As a psychiatrist I’m usually listening with most patients across three or four gaps at any one time. At the VA the vets know in a blink that I’ve not served in the military, so when they’re talking about military experiences I have to listen more attentively, avoid judgment, and play back what I’ve heard. And they’re telling me about states of mind I’ve never experienced, illnesses I’ve never suffered, and cultures I’ve never lived in. It’s hard to listen effectively across so many gaps at once, but knowing the gaps and talking about them helps.
My cousin, Hathaway Barry, published this year a chronicle of the triumph of her efforts to listen across a gap, a book called Boy: A Woman Listening to Men and Boys. She has spent much of the past ten years on this project. In her Introduction she tells us, “In my later fifties I fell in love again….He was the most open and vulnerable man I’d loved and the most elaborately defended. My heart was scrambled….I wanted to know what happens to boys growing up. Maybe I would need to listen differently if I wanted to find out….I just wanted to listen without blame or judgment to how it is for men….to hear their honest human stories, without gloss or performance….I was just curious.”
She reminds her reader that she is not a social scientist or anthropologist or journalist, and she did not set out to write a book. “This inquiry was born out of heartache. The sorrow of not knowing how to reach one another when this is so much our common human longing.”
So she reached across the gender gap by interviewing more than 80 men and boys and weaving the transcripts of their conversations into this book. It is 362 pages, 38 chapters organized into four sections. The proof of her apparently acquired capacity to listen effectively to men and boys during the past decade comes through the intimate and often pain-ridden stories they share with her. She discovered the tender vulnerabilities that lurk beneath the strutting and bluster and bravado. “There’s a slant to the stories I’ve selected….I’ve mostly chosen to share the more vulnerable responses, those perhaps less easily spoken about publicly.”
The first line of the book is: “Everywhere I go now, I see men differently.” The triumph of this listening project delivers a lesson for us all in her Afterword: “When I took a breath and relaxed, suspended my beliefs long enough to put myself in their shoes, and let myself just listen and not know, the world lit up. It was like falling in love again and again with life.”
What a find. In her sixties. It’s never too late to learn to listen. Pick your gap. Reach across, all ears, all heart.