on listening as a political act


I will try to keep this short.

Friends, I am feeling the darkness. I first noticed it in the summer, the day the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling hit social media. After I got out of the shower, I stayed on my bed for hours, wrapped in a towel, scrolling endlessly on my phone, feeling paralyzed, powerless. In September, I couldn’t sleep well. I felt a vague, persistent sadness. One day I cry-chopped an entire dinner because I’d had a tiny argument with my partner over groceries. “I don’t feel like myself,” I told him later. “But I don’t know why.” Then I got canker sores and acne and a pain below my right shoulder blade that has not gone away.

I think a good name for this feeling is existential sadness.

This is certainly not the first time I’ve had the thought that goes: Oh, the world does not work the way my parents told me it did.* I get it: I recognize my privilege.

But also I don’t. I had–up until last week–the luxury of believing that despite the very real existence of hate, there were enough decent people and there was enough moral outrage that someone who embodied that hate could never win a presidential election.

And yet I was wrong.

I got this wrong because though I have witnessed hate (especially growing up in the South but also here in Vancouver in regular if more subtle ways) I have rarely been the target of that hate. I have allowed hate to be an abstraction in my life.

This Saturday Night Live sketch (which made me laugh exactly zero times, because it hit way too close) sums it up well.

In the past few days, I’ve seen a lot of folks who want to act: to blame, to prescribe, to learn, to fight, to reconcile, to rage, to assure me that it will be okay. And while I totally get these impulses, I am, for now, resisting them.

I have donated and petitioned and called my Congresspersons. I’ve done all of this with self-righteousness and with desperation, but not with much clarity.

And I have gone on long walks in the sun with people who have listened to me process and process and process this hot mess of feelings I have. I feel such gratitude toward them–for the generosity of listening. It’s such a sincere form of love.

When I was seventeen a doctor diagnosed me with depression. This was a relief to my mother, who had been wondering why her previously-chirpy, overachieving daughter wanted to yell at her so often. I was prescribed Paxil, which I refused to take for reasons I no longer remember, and I went to counseling.

It turned out that what I wanted–what I needed–was to be heard. Being heard softened my existential sadness, but it took a long time.

I keep thinking about that now. I don’t need to be heard; I have a voice now. And my feelings of darkness–however difficult they may be–just aren’t that important. I am sad, but I am also fairly safe right now.

What I mean is, maybe talking (prognosticating/sermoning/thinking aloud on Facebook) isn’t the only coping strategy available. Maybe it’s not that useful of a strategy at all–especially if you, like me, feel safe.

When I was an undergrad, one of my favorite professors was a Quaker. He used a lot of silence in his classes. I think of him often when my classroom falls silent. I am not great at silence–I am the teacher/writer always rushing to fill silence with words (even now, as I blog about listening). When I feel uncomfortable with my students’ silence, I tell them about Dr. Heller and how totally cool he was with silence.

“We’re going to try some silence today,” I say, and we all giggle awkwardly as we sit together without speaking. Then, usually, one of them will raise a hand and fill the silence with insight.

I relay all this as a really round-about way of saying, I’m gonna try some silence and wait for insight.

Since I am trying not to be too prescriptive, I will not make any recommendations other than to say that if you want to listen, too, if you want to sit with your existential sadness, there are plenty of people–people of color, religious minorities, queer people, fat people, people with disabilities–who have things to say. Find them. Find their books. Find their poems. Find them on Facebook or Twitter and read what they post with real, sincere attention. Don’t respond; listen. Listen well. Think of listening as a radical political act.**


EDIT: I just re-read this and it feels kind of bleak. I’m also listening (literally) to comedy podcasts (like this one and this one) where I get to hear people talk about race and racial identity and queer identity and I also get to laugh. Listening can be hard–but also it can be a pleasure. Maybe start here?


*and not only that, my parents (and I) are part of the problem.

**If you are one of those people who feels unsafe, feel free to post links to your writing–or someone else’s–in the comments. Maybe this can be a place for those of us who are listening to start. The writing doesn’t need to be political (because the personal is political anyway). And it doesn’t need to be written since or about the election. Maybe it gives voice to something about being human–by anyone whose voice might get drowned out in all the talking.





10 thoughts on “on listening as a political act

  1. A beautiful expression of love for truth, justice and freedom for all; made all the more poignant by a personal confession of a fragile heart.
    I hear you and I feel your pain. Here in South Africa we’ve had the long arduous journey towards the abolition of apartheid. To witness its resurrection in what was once The most democratic country in the world is deeply saddening to say the least.
    As a female Muslim of Indian origin, one can only imagine my dissappointment, like yours, at the sheer ludricacy of the current political climate on your side of the world… God save us all

    • Hi Dr. Jooma: Thanks so much for commenting. I think we in North America could learn a lot from South Africa. It’s far too easy to be myopic about our current events. I was trying to remind myself that social progress takes ugly turns, but now even this feels too simple an explanation for the political turmoil.

  2. I love the idea of listening as healing–as a health care professional (nurse) and as a mom and as someone who has so often not felt listened to. But I also am struggling with the idea that the people I don’t agree with (the ones who voted for him) also felt not listened to by us “elites” “liberals” “over-educated pc types” or whatever they want to call people like me. I am used to defaulting toward compassion, even towards people who are horrible to me, because sick people often behave horribly toward their nurses–“hurt people hurt people”–and I keep thinking that’s the case with at least some Trump supporters. But I’m not sure I can listen to them. It kind of makes me feel sick and scared. But turning away won’t necessarily help either. I don’t know how to link to my writing, but if you want to find me I am at michellechalfoun.com. I’m the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, mother to two Latinx children, nursing and writing in the NY area, and so so sad and scared for us all.

    • Hi Michelle: Thanks for this. I, too, am struggling to figure out the balance between the idea of “hurt people hurting people” and people who are just horrible. It’s easy to place blame and put current events into some kind of preexisting narrative. I’m trying to avoid doing either of those but, like you said, it’s hard.

      Congratulations on your first book! I’m heading over to check out your website now. 🙂

      Maybe this link will work: https://michellechalfoun.com/

      • Thanks for checking out my website and book. I was really gratified to have such an awesome publishing house (Farrar Straus Giroux) publish it. Dream come true. I always wanted to write a “classic” like The Secret Garden, for kids who don’t have characters who look like them (kids like me and my daughter).
        It’s so weird to be living in this world that has room for so much diversity, when nearly half of the world is fighting that trend.

  3. Sometimes we need that silence.

    A wise teacher wrote inside my school-leaving autograph book, “For fear your tongue should make a slip, three things observe with care – of whom you speak, to whom you speak, how, when and where. I can’t say I always remembered, but trying helped.

  4. Thanks,have a good luck .

    the love story project 于2016年11月16日 周三上午9:19写道:

    > Mandy Len Catron posted: ” I will try to keep this short. Friends, I am > feeling the darkness. I first noticed it in the summer, the day the deaths > of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling hit social media. After I got out of > the shower, I stayed on my bed for hours, wrapped ” >

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