I’ve been thinking a lot about communication recently. There is a certain stillness some people have when they listen. My daughter has it. My friend Karen has it. Katie has it. HBL has it. The space between us gets magnetic, and I have the sense they aren’t thinking about the night before or what to say when I am done talking. I get the feeling they are listening. And that is almost better than food.
I’m not sure my parents had it. I’m not sure I have it as a parent. I am afraid I am so busy thinking about what is the right way to respond when my daughter talks that more often than not I’m thinking more than listening.
When I really listen to people talk, it’s like meditation. I get to single-focus on what they are saying to me, and I don’t have to worry about what I think. It happened to me today at the coffee shop with my friend. I wasn’t all jacked up on caffeine and so I was able to look at her as she spoke, listen to her, and travel down the road of her story with her instead of worrying about what interesting thing I could say when she was done talking so she could tell I was 1. smart. 2. paying attention.
I interrupt my friends a lot when they talk. It’s so rude. What it comes down to is that I think what I have to say is more important than what they have to say. I’m working on that. Notes to self: 1. Anne, stop interrupting, I don’t care if you were born in New York. That’s not a good enough excuse. 2. And brush your hair while you’re at it.
In episode #612 of “This American Life” a father, Ken, got to ask his grown-up son, Chris, a question he had wanted to ask him for a long time, and the son, when he agreed to come to the studio and do the show, had no idea what his father was going to ask him.
It took Ken an hour to get to the real question. First he asked, “Do you pray?” “Why are you such an NBA fan instead of a pro baseball fan?” “Would you ever do a nude seen in a movie?” and then, finally, the dad asked what he really wanted to know. He asked Chris why it took him so long to tell his dad and his mom about his depression when he was open about it on social media and on stage as a comedian.
The son said, “I don’t know.” He said “I don’t know” a lot for the rest of the interview. He said he didn’t tell his parents because he was afraid of letting them down or failing them in some way. He sounded truly puzzled, mystified by his own silence.
As parents, we want our kids to talk to us. We know that if they would just tell us their problems, if we couldn’t solve them ourselves, we could at least find someone who could help. As kids, we want our parents to just know what we need without having to tell them. Or at least that’s what I wanted.
Ken told Chris that he’d been shocked when he finally had learned about his son’s depression because Chris had done such a good job of hiding it. Chris said he’d hoped the depression was something that would pass. He said he didn’t want to worry his dad or his mom and had hoped he was just a moody kid.
What did happen when Chris had finally told his parents about his depression was that they sprang into action and got their son the help he needed.
Chris said, “You were never going to be the guy I could come to and say, ‘Dad I’m really sad and I don’t know why.’ You weren’t going to know what to say, but I should have given you a lot more credit to knowing that you were going to run through walls to get me to where I needed to go.”
The dad so clearly wanted to be there for his son, and his son so clearly grateful for the support he’d gotten from his mom and dad, but I had the sense that if another big crisis came along, nothing would change. And I’m not sure why.
But I have an idea.
I talked to a friend the other day who couldn’t decide whether to stay in his unhappy marriage where they didn’t even live together anymore and the job he didn’t like, or to take off and live the life of his dreams in New York, a dream life that was viable and within his means. It was like someone was standing in front of me on fire, asking whether he should continue to stand there or to get some water and put out the fire.
It was like: duh. Your wife is awful to you and no one will notice if you leave your job.
But the last I heard, he was still on fire.
Why is it so scary to ask of life what we most want or need? Do we fear what will happen if we ask for the thing we most need from the people we most love? Does the world come to an end if they fail us? What actually happens? Does it feel better to have a predictable, unfulfilling life and a dream because then at least you can imagine that things could be better, whereas you’d really be in trouble if you give up the predictable and unfulfilling life and the dream turns out to be a dud, for then you’re left with nothing.
Or so you think.
They should teach communication in preschool, elementary school, high school, college. They should have videos about communicating at gas stations so you can learn while you fill your tank. They should have trailers about communicating before the movie starts.
Or maybe they already do and I just wasn’t listening.