I must confess that I am not a huge fan of This American Life. It is a little bit too much for me, like a parody of NPR. Some of the stories are duds, and they go on and on with that music playing and I just want them to be over. Perhaps I don’t like it because I feel like I should.
But I heard last week’s episode on the way home from the mountains on Friday. The middle story was lovely, about a 15-year-old young man named Andy who was so unhappy with his home life that he ran away to his favorite author, Piers Anthony. The fun was in the way that Andy figured out where Piers Anthony lived (using atlases and triangulation, before the internet!), but what I loved most of all was how kind Piers Anthony was once Andy showed up at his house. It’s a story that could have gone wrong in a lot of different ways, but it ends up being a beautiful picture of grace. Several times, Andy emphasizes how important it was to finally feel as if someone was listening to him. (Transcript here.)
We go back to school in a couple of weeks. I will shelve those books that have been waiting for me. I will fix the computers that have mysteriously stopped working over the summer. And I will reclaim the seat behind my desk, the one that students treat as a confessional. I cannot solve their problems, which seem more intense than the mild unhappiness I suffered at their age. I have opinions about politics and poverty and hunger and incarceration, but my opinions aren’t going to help a 12-year-old whose dad is in jail or a 13-year-old who is clearly not getting enough to eat. I try, instead, to listen. I ask How does that make you feel? and say I’m sorry. I give them Doritos. Sometimes they walk away a little bit taller, a little bit more calm. It does not feel like a stretch to say that listening is the most important part of my job. Perhaps it is an important part of simply being human.
To hear someone is a gift. We are given the opportunity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand their hopes and plans. There have been a lot of times in the past week that I have wished that we as a culture would do more listening. If we would hear one another rather than loudly making proclamations all the time, then we might remember to see each other as more than just angry enemies. There is always something to fight about. There are times when we must speak up, and there are times when we should ask ourselves if we will simply be contributing to the noise. At all of those times, we should be quick to listen.
On This American Life, Andy says that when Piers Anthony listened to him, it was as if a fever or a hex had broken. Fantasy? Or the everyday magic of common grace? If we believe the truth can set us free, we should be willing to offer that freedom to others, to give them the space to speak and to be heard.