Monday, January 26, 2009



Two months ago, I wrote a piece called "Rushing and Listening." There, I asserted that the "single-player program for success in American life" creates ingrained cultural impatience. Because not everyone can be successful, there is unforgiving competition for limited resources. That leaves no time to listen to other people. After all, to truly listen to someone, you must suspend your own concerns, focus deeply on the other person's words and consider life from his perspective. For the American success-seeker, that is not an option; there is just not enough time. He has somewhere to be or someone to call. He might listen to another person, of course, but only if it would benefit him in some way. In my previous article, I lamented this because it bespeaks an acute lack of humanity on the "road to success" in America. If we cannot truly listen to others, we will never understand them. And without simple understanding between human beings, there is isolation, frustration, suspicion and emptiness. Yet impatience--and its concomitant burden on listening--prevail in our society. In my estimation, cultural impatience reflects our society's dominant view that "other people" are fungible resources to be exploited, not unique individuals to be respected.

I revisit this topic to consider a specific issue: Listening to injured people. Cultural impatience makes it difficult to listen to other people, even if they are physically and mentally fit. There is no time or energy to waste attempting to understand another person's perspective. Yet if a person is mentally or physically impaired, there is even greater incentive not to listen to them. Even if a fit person tries to listen to an injured person, how can the fit person truly relate to the injured person's predicament? At best, the listener walks away with a superficial understanding about the injured person's circumstances. He says: "Too bad for him. It must be hard." Or: "I can't imagine what he's going through." Then he returns to his everyday affairs: Going to work, paying bills, watching television, visiting family, commuting, eating dinner and doing his best to find some joy in existence. At worst, the listener simply does not care. He says: "Well, thank God it's not me. I need to go back to work." Or: "I'm in such a hurry to get these errands done. Wait--didn't I see some injured guy today? I can't remember anything he said to me. Doesn't wife is expecting me home, and I have things to do tomorrow." Then he completely forgets the encounter.

What does it take to truly listen to an injured person? I discuss this because I know someone who suffered a devastating accident last year and now suffers from incessant post-traumatic stress. He cannot sleep or rest. Nightmares torture him every night and he wants to commit suicide. He talks about his pain and despair. There is no way I can really feel the same pain he does, nor can I understand what it must be like to go months on end without sleeping at night. I try my best. I want to show him that I am genuinely concerned and that I will do anything I can to help him. Yet even in this I feel helpless. It is emotionally difficult to listen to an injured person in a compassionate way. It burdens the mind. To listen, you must set aside your own daily activities and even your thoughts. You must focus exclusively on another person's thoughts, impressions, words and actions. You must even remember who the person is, and--if you know it--consider his history. It is difficult work. And it is exhausting.

Listening to an injured person alone is difficult. Imagine what it is like to actually be injured.

Yet most people do not put in any work to understand others who have suffered misfortune in life. They either do not have time or they do not have the energy. There are "more important things" to be done. Success-seekers have a distinctly egotistic mental state. Their thoughts are regular and calculated. They follow familiar patterns. They do not deviate far from "the plan." In order to listen, however, one must put aside comfortable, self-centered thoughts to consider matters from an entirely different perspective. Success-seekers cannot do this, even when listening to uninjured people. They can never abandon their mental outlook long enough to comprehend an injured person's predicament. They may be successful, but they do not have enough simple humanity to lay off "the plan" for a few moments.

True, there are contexts in which success-seekers listen to injured people in a professional capacity. When I practiced law, it amazed me to see how little lawyers cared about their injured clients, even though they had listened to their stories with meticulous, technical precision. For a personal injury lawyer, clients become dollar signs with stories to tell. Trial lawyers make their fortunes listening, processing, grooming and retelling the stories of injured people, milking details likely to generate sympathy in unsophisticated jurymen. But this is all show. Lawyers listen to injured people with an ear only for money-making details. They do not listen for humanity's sake; they listen as detached, calculating technicians. There is something morbidly perverse in this; among many other things, it drove me away from personal injury practice. For example, I will never forget a highly successful personal injury lawyer who said: "I spent all that time listening and she didn't even have a fracture, just a sprain. A fucking sprain! Where are all the good clients with fractures? Don't people get permanently injured anymore? Now we're just stuck with these shitty soft tissue cases."

No doubt about it: Lawyers listen to injured people. For all the wrong reasons.

In my heart, I always felt deeply for genuinely injured people. In fact, my basic compassion for them led me to practice as a trial lawyer. I spent hours listening, even when my boss screamed at me for "taking too long with them." They cried when they told me about living with debilitating headaches. They cried when they showed me their scars. And they cried when they told me how violated they felt after someone sexually abused them. I did my best to consider what they said. I did all I could to banish my own thoughts in order to focus on what they were telling me. I knew I could never understand their anguish. But I never listened to them merely to shoehorn their words into a money-making legal formula. That is why I failed as a trial lawyer. I did not "manage my time properly" because I did not rush clients through their stories. Strangely, lawyers constantly listen, but they are also extremely impatient. Put simply, they "rush to listen," get all the information they need to win, then move to the next speaker before repeating the process. But this is not true listening. This is mere self-serving sorcery.

I do my best in life to listen truly. It is a difficult road, but the rewards are worth it. In our hectic society, ruthless self-interest and egotism win the accolades. Winning is everything; how you played the game really does not matter once you have the prize money. The race always hangs in the balance; there is no time to listen to a story that has nothing to do with the race. But even the winners sometimes face hardships in life. They may even suffer injury, knocking them out of the race. They want someone to understand their circumstances and pain when the bad times come. Should it surprise them that "no one has time" for their stories, either? This is the hard, lonely truth about American life: There is no time for humanity when you need it most. Impatience is the pulse of success. It is all well and good to be impatient while mercilessly pursuing success. Yet when misfortune strikes, who will listen to you? Who will have time to care? I think we would all be better if we slowed down a little bit, took some time out and truly listened to each other once in a while. After all, it feels good to know that someone else understands us and cares about us. Listening makes that possible. What a shame that more people do not practice it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with and can completely relate to the topic of your article.

I have PTSD, clinical depression, OCD, hyper-vigilance and Agoraphobia (to name a few). The worst of these is certainly the depression but the Agoraphobia is socially crippling. I simply have a difficult, sometimes impossible time leaving my home.

The one thing I hear quite often from people that know of my condition is "You just need to get out more." Good advice for someone that chooses their predicament but not for an Agoraphobic. Sometimes that kind of simple advice is annoying to me but I bite mmy lip and try to explain.

Even after explaining my affliction I still get the same comments. How can people understand what I go through unless they are in the same boat? I myself didn't understand the scope of a mental illness until I was in that boat myself. I'm a great listener, it's why I know as much as I do but there's still a difference between knowing and understanding.

It's difficult to understand what it's like to be the one in the sinking boat when yours is still afloat. You can only imagine and try to understand. I pride myself on being a listener but that kind of "listening" is far more involved. I can relate to others that are in a similar predicament but I still only truly know my own hell. Everyone's hell is their own.

You end up feeling alone with your affliction no matter how hard others try to comprehend it.

Great article!