Uppermost House: The man who learned to listen

PeterLewisTreehouseCMYKBy S. Peter Lewis

BN Columnist

You don’t listen.

The words spilled out in slow unavoidable syllables, relentless, pushing, demanding attention and bearing down, and the man who heard them leaned into the words the same way he’d lean into thigh-deep river current to keep his footing. The speaker’s eyes bored into him and if the man so much as flinched he felt he’d be swept over.

The speaker was his business partner and the two of them were having one of those gloves-off discussions meant to root deeply and dig out junk, to boost trust and confidence and help the company. Polite confrontation was expected, even welcomed, but those three words felt like evisceration to the man suddenly pressed, for he always considered himself the consummate ear-guy. Had a real knack for listening, he thought. In conversations at home, for instance, he could be miles away in his head while still retaining the last 30 seconds or so of background wife-speak so that when called upon he could rewind the tape a bit and still make a relatively intelligent (if not entirely genuine) response.

But his friend went on to describe someone the man didn’t immediately recognize as himself: distracted, preoccupied, double-minded, some times even dismissive. But the tough message was delivered without animosity, vitriol, or spite; it was just undeniable, in-your-face fact. Like a cracked windshield. And the chastisement was fair and compassionate, brutally honest and brave, and motivated by kindness and high hopes.

The man unclenched his life and heard his friend’s words, and for the first time in a long time he listened. And those few seconds while the terrible words hung in the air and the room fell silent marked the beginning of something very good.

The man learned to close his laptop, to put down the phone, to switch his far-wandering mind back toward here. Toward this. Toward right now. Toward the other person. He learned the value of keeping his lips together and shunning the sound of his own voice. He learned to look into the eyes of his wife, his children, his friends, even they eyes of strangers. It was hard and it took many years (for the man was a living bundle of interference, self interest, and idle chattiness), but little by little he became known as attentive, willing and curious, easy to talk to.

And listening made the man see. See that all people hurt, and that being listened to eased the pain. See that one of the greatest human needs is to simply be understood. See that the highest compliment can come in nothing more than thoughtful and quiet attention. See that people don’t want so much to shout, but to be heard, and that they shout only because they know no one is listening.

And so listening became a precious treasure to him. Not to gain leverage or advantage, but because listening so often led to helping. And helping led to loving. And loving led back to listening. And the man’s own life slowly and beautifully disappeared.

Decades later, the man’s favorite niece was due to land in Boston at one o’clock in the morning and he couldn’t bear the thought of her dozing alone all night on a hard plastic chair while waiting for the first bus north, so at the hour when he would typically don his pajamas he instead gulped a great slug of coffee, climbed into his car, and began the six-hour round trip. After circling Logan’s concourses twice the man finally saw the smile and the outstretched arms and stopped the car and flung the door open and flung himself at his niece and swung her around with her feet off the ground.

She was tough, had grown up hard, his beautiful niece. Had sharp edges. Could be prickly. You might think her slightly caged, guarded, coiled. Dangerous to get close to, as a bed of hot coals hidden under dark ashes. But beneath the snarky rhetoric and behind the squints, the man knew she was just a young lady yearning to be heard.

And the tough lady knew her uncle adored her, knew that her words would stick and not just fly past, knew that her thoughts and fears and dreams mattered to him. And so somewhere north of Danvers Massachusetts, in the middle of a lonely stretch of blackest highway, she tipped toward him and knelt her jet-lagged head softly against his shoulder. Whispered his name in the darkness and said, almost breathlessly, Ask me about my life. And the man’s heart melted and for the next three hours he loved his niece without saying a word.

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