Sunday, June 21, 2015

On Slowly and Quietly Standing Up

A few months ago I heard the novelist Colum McCann speak at a luncheon. Colum McCann is the author of nine books, including Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. I hadn't read any of his books. The truth is I had never heard of Colum McCann. I only went to the luncheon because a writer friend had invited me.

As soon as Colum McCann began to speak, I rustled around in my purse as quietly as I could to find a pen and my little notebook. I had a feeling that I might want to remember what the guy was saying.

Stories are important, he said in his lovely Irish accent. We each have stories to tell, stories only we can tell. It's important--as human beings--that we do this.

I nodded in agreement, but I didn't write it down. I knew it already. If I believe in anything, I believe in this.

He went on to to talk about how scientists have done studies. They've looked at our brains when we tell stories, when we write stories. Apparently, our brains light up. Something powerful is going on. What's fascinating, though, is that the same kind of lighting up of the brain happens to the listeners of stories.

When we hear another person's story, we experience it too. We feel what he feels. We step into her shoes if only for a moment.

"You can't hate someone when you know their story," Colum McCann said.

He called on the audience to practice radical empathy--truly listen to what other people are saying-- even people who seem to us to be close-minded, people who are unwilling to consider other points of views. It may be hard, but we must listen and listen and listen until the other person is storied out.

Only then can we begin to bridge whatever gaps we have between us.

I don't know if this is true. Some days the gaps between people seem unbridgeable to me.

I do what a lot of people I know do: I feel immense outrage and horror and sadness. I rant and rave to anyone who will listen. Or I mock everything.

How stupid people are. How crazy. How ridiculous.

I turn off the news when it gets to be too much. I immerse myself in a seemingly endless array of entertainment options--anything to forget how lucky and privileged I am. Because if I don't think about it-- I don't have to do anything about it.

But not very deep down I know that I am one of the carriage riders in Les Miserables, flying past suffering and abject poverty. I am a laughing clapping audience member sitting in the front row of the Hunger Games. 

The other day my little notebook fell out of my purse.

I flipped through the pages and found the notes I took when I listened to Colum McCann.

Think of others. Listen to others.

And then what, Colum McCann?

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