As I waited to board the plane for vacation, the supreme court ruling on marriage equality was on the restaurant TV and I cried with joy and relief right there in the airport over my salty potatoes and overdone egg. My sons and husband looked at me, confused and concerned about my tears. The day before I had been actively listening to homeless mentally ill folks out front of Lava Mae busses. My outrage from seeing the poor mental health services on display in our country, my grief over the Charleston shootings, and my joy about the marriage equality ruling all came out in tears of relief and overwhelm, right there in terminal 2. I felt grateful for my sons’ curiosity and fast questions about the supreme court, why gay people couldn’t marry in the first place and how does a man and a man fertilize a baby egg. It gave me some momentary relief from the intensity of what I was feeling inside.
I wondered about the years I spent turning a blind eye to all the persecution of people in my community who have to contend with not being SWASP (Straight, White, Anglo Saxon Protestant), and my own guilt getting to choose when I feel bad and when I don’t in my gentrified small town. And still, my heartache that day at the airport, and today, feels genuine and my outrage real, so I can’t demure because of my white privileged liberalism. I think some of the tenants of psychotherapy, namely attentive empathy, or as I like to call it, “activist listening,” have something to offer us all in this time of triumph and heartache.
Psychotherapy clients ask me all the time, “Don’t you get tired of hearing so many people’s sob stories and complaining?” I have yet to feel tired. Sure, some days are long, and being a therapist requires a level of attention that is taxing, but never in my 13 years now of working with psychotherapy clients have I ever felt “tired of someone’s experience,” or judged their pain as annoying complaining. So much in the asking of that question is about the inner work of the client. “Am I worthy of being listened to? Do I matter? Do you care about me? Am I special?” I am grateful for my own growth in listening, and genuine feelings of care and non judgement for my clients.
Learning to listen has become one of the great joys of my life. I am still an amateur, working on it outside the therapy room. I feel liberated from my own ego and find peace, clarity and belonging when I remember to practice deeply resonate listening. This is not the kind of listening where I am riding above the emotional fray, better than or healthier than; Rather, this listening puts my feet right in the emotional soup with people who are sharing their joy or grief, anger or empowerment. I truly allow myself to hum with a sense of “What it must be like to be in that experience?” I feel a deep sense of belonging, connection and purpose when I inhabit a kind of listening flow. It takes some practice, and I am always working on crafting some tools for good listening. What I have learned over the years is that level of being listened to, resonated with, is one of the greatest healing components of psychotherapy – not the only one, but certainly a big one. Being heard and feeling like I matter has been a deep longing in my own life, so it makes sense that I would offer this up as a professional service.
My rage at reading racist Facebook posts by members of my own family after the Baltimore shootings, as well as at liberal colleagues when they posted a sense of American gloom and doom (“This country sucks and we’re moving!”) spurned me to take action. I had held onto a yearning for two years to sit out on the street to listen to people, to take some of the tenants of empathic listening from therapy to the public. I decided that NOW was the time.
Many people poo-pooed the idea. “It will be dangerous.” “You will only get crazy homeless people.” “This is a therapeutic ethical violation.” “You are just doing this for self promotion.” “This is just your white guilt and white saviorism.” All of this was unconscious material on the part of the commenter and I did my best to practice “listening” to them. And my conviction was so strong my inner critic almost never sided with these “nay sayers” – at least not enough to stop me. This was how I could deal with the heartache of this divisiveness inside of me and I felt a pull from some force larger than me – this was an inspired action. I can’t pretend to know what it is like to be persecuted in the way Black Americans and Gay Americans have been, but I can’t also hide out feeling un-entitled to my outrage because I am part of the white privileged class nor am I acting from any sort of White saviorism but rather from the most congruent form of activism for me and who I am as a self. Widening my ears to hear marginalized voices continues to change me so I can’t say what is next for me but listening is here to stay.
Sidewalk Talk, co-created with Lily Sloane, was born, for me, from the need to channel my outrage and perhaps model a way to be with difference out in public, on the streets where others might join in. Maybe my racist family would get wind of it. So much of the kind of listening we do in therapy is radical and counter-culture in the best possible way, for we accept and aspire to understand difference rather than shame it. I wanted to take it out into the public setting and make it visible to heal me and my community in one small incremental way – listening-minute by listening-minute. I am happy to report the idea became a reality and we did put our chairs out in San Francisco May 7, in LA May 26, and again in front of Lava Mae busses on June 25 (this latter population is mostly homeless). It has had a profound impact on me and has crystallized my life’s mission as an activist for relational intelligence and empathy.
Listening in this activist way has made my outrage more tolerable because I was doing something in my own small way, and I was deeply honoring my profession and the work of psychotherapists everywhere. I am raising my hand and saying, “This is what I do and it is powerful, healthy, radical and it can be freely available to everyone, not just elite white folks with a lot of money to pay for it.” I read the articles and intellectual debate about race in America in response to Charleston, but that intellectualism just doesn’t help heal my outrage – it just fuels more and leaves me feeling lumped in with hopelessness. It unnerves many people in my life who judge me for my need to speak up, take action, provoke towards truth. What I am learning through listening is that in order to truly offer up our gifts to the world, we can’t worry about being popular. My dream has grown now and I wish for a mixing of young and old, rich and poor, mentally ill and mentally well, people of color and SWASPs listening to each other on the streets regularly, all over the place. What a day that would be.
Serendipitously, I just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’ s Americanah on my holiday. Ifemelu, the Nigerian journalist in the novel, writes a blog on race from a Non-American Black point of view. Her character had a profound quote that made me grin from ear to ear about the healing power of listening, and it offered some solace to me as it put into words with eloquence and authority what I feel. Ifemelu’s words emboldened me. I share a large piece with you here hoping it will inspire you to become a listener in your own way, or to join Sidewalk Talk. Either way, laypeople and therapists alike, it is time for us to rise up together to heal that which divides us. It is time for us to be courageous and visible in our listening. Sidewalk Talk is recruiting and training new listeners if you want to join in. Even if you can’t listen, there are many ways to volunteer.
This listening thing has been the healthiest way to redirect many sources of outrage for me, and heal from the inside out. I hope therapists feel emboldened to be more visible in their profound work! What you do matters on so many more levels than you give yourself credit for. Let’s take it to the streets!
Here is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in her book, Americanah:
…racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. How? Well, white folks don’t get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don’t choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don’t tell white kids that they’re not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don’t try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don’t say they can’t use white models to advertise glamourous products because they are not considered “aspirational” by the “mainstream”. So after this listing of don’ts, what’s the do? I am not sure. Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a questions is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard.