I write about listening. One day, I asked myself, “Why do we need to listen to people? Never mind the practical stuff like coordinating efforts to build bridges, or finding out what your spouse needs from the supermarket. I mean ants and bees can tell each other where to find food. What’s the deep, human reason why we need to be heard?”
We humans experience life with more understanding and emotion than any other animal. We love and have soaring ideas. We also hate and are acutely aware of mortality (other’s and our own).
Loneliness then is having to deal with our thoughts and feelings on our own. It is yearning, and not able to share and have it reciprocated. It is fear and hopelessness, without relief. It is anger, isolated. It is humor, with no audience. It is concerns, with no acknowledgment. In a more general sense, it can also be dealing with a tough work situation with no help from your colleagues nearby, or facing discrimination, when others don’t even realize you feel separate and not welcome. In some ways, life is too much for one soul to bear.
How do we “fix” loneliness? We all know what it’s like to not be heard. Our experiences not being heard harden us to the external world. They make us less trusting, less open. That’s one reason I define listening as putting someone else’s speaking, thinking, and feeling needs first. Good listeners earn the speaker’s trust. They bring their best to a conversation while fully respecting the speaker’s story. They allow the speaker to speak with candor, insight, and dignity. To feel less lonely, find a good listener.
But something interesting also happens to the person who listens. A quick story illustrates this.
Meghan watches her mother finish a telephone call.
“Mommy, why are you crying?” she asks gently.
"I'm okay,” mommy sighs, “I’m okay.”
Meghan leaves the room and comes back moments later.
“When I'm sad, I hold on to Mr. Brown,” she says, handing over her prized teddy bear to her mother.
We often find it meaningful and rewarding when we sacrifice (eg. share our treasured toy) and make a difference in the world. Our own problems are put in better perspective. We see deeper truths. Perhaps Meghan understands that pain does not have to lead to suffering, that our generous and vulnerable selves don’t always have to be protected and withheld. We see the common struggles of life.
Share our best selves often enough, and we get better at doing it under different situations. We become more aware of our incredible capacity to help, and also learn how to take care of ourselves. We share cautiously, but unreservedly. We gain strength and compassion. We feel more connected with others. We are healthier and happier.
Fixing loneliness is therefore not just more people being heard, but also more listeners. Yes, listening deserves prime attention because conversations (including electronic ones) are such an important part of human interactions. We are only alone if we fail to respect and listen to each other’s stories, if we force interactions to be superficial because of poor listening. We give up on opportunities to grow and connect when we don’t rise to the challenge of supporting others, through listening or other means.
Did I say life is too much for one soul to bear? Life is also a shame not to be shared and uplifted by all.