Monday, December 19, 2011

The talking animal that needs to be heard

A rumination:  The other day I met someone who, according to what I had understood, was coming to see me to find out about my research.  I was of course flattered that anyone would think I was doing something interesting.  But it turned out that in an hour and a half my visitor asked no questions; not one.  In fact, what he did do was talk.  It became clear early on that he was brilliant and had a lot of creative ideas.  He was just talking through his experience and his project, what he was teaching, and what it seemed to mean for his students.  I started taking notes.  Eventually I decided to butt into what he was saying to tell him what I was doing, and then he began to take notes.  As it turned out, we had plenty to share.  It was a great time. 
But what I wondered afterward was why he came.  It required a special effort on his part -- he was from another city and had come to town for other reasons.  So why did he want to see me?  I think it was because he needed to talk, to tell someone what he was doing, what he thought about some issues he considered vital. I was useful to him as a listener.  He needed an audience, someone to pay attention as he worked through his own perception of the issues he cared about.  He came to find someone who would appreciate what he was doing.  Indeed I did, and I fulfilled his need for a sympathetic audience. 
The next weekend I was with a friend who has had a hard life, several tragic events in his life, and again I was obliged to listen.  He is one of those types who talks endlessly, if we let him; but it’s hard to listen for very long because he tends to tell the same stories.  Above all, he seems also to need an audience.
I wonder now about our human need to be heard.  We all seem to need an audience.  In the 1990s hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were established to allow the South Africans to allow the two opposing sides, black and white, to reconcile.  Many of them, especially the blacks, had suffered grievously at the hand of the others. The TRC was supposed to enable the victims to tell their stories, perhaps even to confront their abusers, in hopes of bringing closure to the bitter conflicts of the past and to avoid a hopelessly irresolvable civil war.  The TRC could not achieve all that had been hoped, but at least for some folks the process was cathartic.  Some testified to a sense of relief after just telling their stories to an attentive audience; indeed, what some of them had to say revealed such heinous behavior that the whole country was deeply shaken.  For those folks, having someone listen to their stories, to share the anguish they had felt of having no idea what had happened to their loved-ones, gave them a sense of finality.    
We human beings seem to need to talk, to write, to “say” something, as if we lust for an audience that appreciates us.   I hear that often from my students: they want to write.  I wonder if the quest for a sympathetic listener is universal.  To me it seems as if that quest is intrinsic to what we are as human beings.  Isn't it remarkable that billions of dollars are being spent in search of other creatures like ourselves somewhere out there in the universe?  
That seems to be why some of us write blogs.  I have never questioned why anyone writes a blog:  it is to cry out to be heard.  I began this one in desperation, frantic that our government was making egregious blunders in its Middle Eastern wars. I worried, what would be the outcome of such folly?  So many errors of judgment, so much unjustified arrogance.  I wrote to cry out for sanity.  I felt like Jeremiah: “Oh land, land land! Hear the world the of the Lord!”
So why anyone writes is no mystery to me.  The mystery is why anyone bothers to read blogs. Who listens?  Why does anyone want to know what we say?  Such magnanimous souls they are, just to listen!  I have no idea who they are – and in my case they are few and rare – but to the degree that they leave traces, as if they had really heard me, they have performed a service.
One of the continuing questions of anthropologists is what makes human beings different from all the other creatures we know about.  The more we know, the more difficult it is to specify just what makes us different.  Can the lust to be heard, to have an audience, be one of those qualities special to our humanity?  We all hope that someone out there is listening.  


Alex said...

"Can the lust to be heard, to have an audience, be one of those qualities special to our humanity?"

I think that it's more about being understood than just being heard. Early in the post you mentioned the idea that you were a "sympathetic" audience. I think that "sympathetic" as a qualifier is apropo. For some reason, I'm reminded of Rousseau's concept of "amour propre" and the importance of our "being" relative to others.
When I have ideas or am developing thoughts, I find it useful to bounce them off some of my professors. Many, if not most, are not up to the task, but those that are simultaneously help validate and critique my ideas. I think that the process itself allows me to bring my mind out into the open and gain some sort of intellectual acceptance/understanding/being.

Bob said...

Thanks, Alex, for such a helpful comment. Yes, I take that as a wise and fitting correction on what I wrote. Thanks.