The art of listening

I recently read Ties That Bind: Stories of Love & Gratitude from the First Ten Years of Storycorps by Dave Isay. For those of you not familiar with Storycorps, it’s an organization that facilitates and records conversations, giving the participates a copy and sending a copy to the Library of Congress. It’s been ten years since the program began and there have been over 100,000 recorded conversations between “uncelebrated” extraordinary people.

One of my favorite stories from this collection is a father and daughter conversation. He was a young, single father going to college and raising a toddler. He was on the basketball team and drowning in obligations. He would bring his baby with him to his night job as a janitor and let her sleep in the closet. He would bring his toddler to his classes and give her paper and crayons to color wtih during the lectures. The daughter, now 16, asked if he was ever embarrassed about having her with him. He says: “I don’t think I was ever embarrassed—that’s one of the few emotions that I didn’t experience at that time.” When he graduated, they called out both their names and he walked to the stage to get his diploma with her in his arms. The entire class rose to their feet and gave him the only standing ovation. (This is where I started tearing up.)

At the end of their conversation, he acknowledges that he has cancer. His daughter says: “It’s hard for me , because I know you don’t want me to be the one to take care of you, and you’re probably scared about what’s going to happen to me if I lose you. But the first week when I was home from school, I would cook you dinner and it made me happy being able to care for you, knowing my whole life you were doing that for me. You’re my rock.”

Flat. Out. Crying.

That’s only the first story of the collection.

At the end of the collection they include a series of questions that they have found help deep conversations going:

What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

Who was the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?

Who has been the kindest person to you in your life?

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?

What are you proudest in your life?

Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to me?

How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?

How would you like to be remembered?

Do you have any regrets?

What does your future hold?

Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?

Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but never asked?

When I read this book I was struck by how extrodianry the stories were and how ordinary the people telling them looked. We really don't know what goes on in the lives and hearts of people around us. The only way to know is to ask. And listen.

More later,