Triage Nation

These days it seems we have a whole lotta talkers and precious few listeners. Everyone walks around, day after day, with a chest full of hopes, disappointments, passions, ideals, opinions and needs. If we’re lucky, we have a tribe or a partner or a friend who bears witness to some of what keeps us awake at night. But even still, it can get lonely. I think Vincent Van Gogh said it best:

“One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way.”

It would seem we have forgotten how to sit by each other’s fires.

Few would argue that our current political climate has accelerated our estrangement. But we can’t place all the blame at the feet of politics. The sheer velocity of life and all of its distractions are major players in the “passers-by” equation. Still, I don't remember any other political era in my lifetime that has felt as antagonistic, angry and tumultuous as it does today. (Yes, I was in middle school when the Vietnam War ended, but when the debate was truly raging, I was running around the elementary school playground.)

I think politics is just a symptom, not the cause. We want to pin our blame on this platform or that, this party or the other one, this politician or that guy over there. Forest, meet trees. From where I sit, one of the most aggressive cancers in our public discourse right now is blind judgment. Assumptions. It’s easier to associate you with all I hate than to sit at your fire and listen to why you feel the way you do. Granted, it's difficult to listen when people are yelling, or when they’re setting you straight about things you don’t even support. So we defend and they talk louder. Then we talk louder and they defend. By and large, we are fighting over what we think someone else thinks!

It’s easier to peg someone than it is to listen to them. And it’s absolutely killing us.

What if we found a way to listen, really listen to each other? I’m not talking about the kind of listening where we’re just waiting for someone to stop talking so we can set them straight. It’s not the kind of listening where we pick out words and phrases that we can use against the person who’s talking, so that we can point out their errors and faulty beliefs.

I’m talking about a listening of the heart.

Triage is described as assessing the wounds and injuries in a large number of casualties, to discover which ones are the worst and thus must be treated first. News flash: we’re all in critical condition. We are two ticks and no dog. We are a nation of solitary fires, some blazing, some smoldering, most unattended. I’ve never been more convinced that the cure for what ails us is listening. My three year-old granddaughter recently said, “I need to tell you a secret, Gia. Spread out your ears.” Spreading out our ears without any other motive than to bear witness to another’s life is a supreme act of love and kindness.


Relax. Listening doesn’t mean that we’re agreeing with them. It doesn’t mean that we can’t work toward the change that we believe the world needs. It doesn't mean we have to let them unload for hours on end. Try five or ten minutes. Sure, some want to win at any cost. Some will accuse. Some will flat out make us angry. But we don’t have to pick those people right out of the gate. We don’t have to listen to everyone. How about starting with just one?

I'd like to invite you to participate in an experiment. What if the next time you want to argue with someone, you lay down all of your preconceived notions, arguments, and the need to be right, and say, “I’d really like to better understand where you’re coming from. Can you tell me why you feel so strongly about this?” And then listen without having to have the last word. In fact, listen without having any word at all. Ask questions for clarity (pro tip: the more you ask, the more a person feels heard.) Then thank them, say something benign, like, “interesting,” and walk away. If you follow up with your viewpoint, it doesn’t count. In this exercise, you don’t get to talk about you. Maybe you’ll get a turn next time. But for now, zip it. Even if baited, resist. Shock the hell out of them by saying, “I don’t want to talk about my views today. I’m here to listen to yours.”

I've come to believe that if I'm unwilling to listen, I don't have a right to be heard. 

Of course one-way conversations aren’t the ultimate answer. But we’ve been trying to have a productive dialog for so very long, and it’s clearly not working. There’s an old recovery slogan that says, “Let it Begin With Me.” So how about it? How about you try being the big person, the benevolent person, the person who holds space for someone you don’t agree with or understand? It sounds easy but it’s hella difficult. Take a chance. Sit by a fire that makes you uncomfortable. And please, oh please, tell me what happens.

Post Script: Below is a photo gallery from the recent Women's March in Austin, TX. I'd like to invite you to look beyond the signs people are holding, and spread out your ears to their faces. Their bodies. Their pain. Their hearts. A word to my more conservative friends and family: I'll attend an event that reflects your ideals and values soon. And I'll do my best to give voice to your hearts. In the meantime, these images may offend some and/or trigger a reflex to turn a deaf ear. Can you make it through without assuming you know what's motivating them?