The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, enshrines such basic values as the right to education, work, “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and “freedom of opinion and expression.” To that worthy list I would add, “freedom to be heard.”
Imagine if we enshrined the importance of listening to each other! From my days as a young editor in a small Manhattan publishing house, through almost two decades as an editor/writer for a UN agency, to my present incarnation coaching memoirists and editing their work, I have focused on that.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that every man, woman, and child has a story to tell— but much rarer to hear the simple truth that every story deserves to be heard. I do not know the reason, but the fact is that most stories never are. I would guess that behind this is something like basic self-centeredness. That’s the reason we do not now and, (as far as I can tell), haven’t ever listened, really listened to each other.
If you doubt that, try asking someone, anyone, a simple question like, “What was it like for you, growing up?’ and then listen to what comes up, without interjecting your own opinions or experiences. Most likely you will receive not only a flood of information but also a rush of emotion, and probably, in the end, a heartfelt expression of gratitude: “Thanks so much for listening. I didn’t think anyone would be interested!”
Simple? Yes. But common? No. In fact it is so rare to be a good listener that anyone who is will soon be sought out by people of all sorts, with all sorts of stories to tell.
I believe that my tutelage in listening started as I, the oldest child in a large family, was chosen by my lonely mother to listen to her odd and sometimes frightening descriptions of her youth. At the age of four or five, I couldn’t have understood those, but I must have sensed that I could help by being a sort of empty vessel for her outpourings. I was simply there, occasionally nodding, but looking straight at her all the while. (Multitasking is not part of this job description.) As I grew older and came to have my own opinions, I sometimes would interject a few words, perhaps “But WHY did you do that?” I soon learned that such comments were not welcome, and did not help to unburden my mother. (Not that I didn’t continue to have questions. I began to puzzle out the answers myself, by piecing narratives together over time.)
I learned about life from listening, and became hooked. I not only listened to everyone I could, but many of the books I came to love were records of people’s life stories.
We can even listen to people who are long gone, if they left us personal writings like journals. In the 1970s, I began looking through bibliographies to find published first-person accounts of female lives. What I found amazed me. The vast majority of published journals were those of men. So, I spent years researching women’s unpublished diaries, scouring libraries, archives, even people’s attics. Four of the diaries I discovered were published as separate volumes. Thirteen were excerpted in an anthology I later edited, Private Pages: Diaries of American Women 1830s-1970s.
In the process, I wrote an article about women’s diaries that received a tremendous response, and was asked to speak about and teach the subject. Later, I spent nearly two decades as a freelance editor for a UN agency, which needless to say, broadened my horizons. People from all over the world visited my New York office, telling me their stories as I researched articles, or just chatted informally with them. As some of those stories were published, many more were mailed, faxed, or sent to me by diplomatic pouch, and the number of lives I published kept growing.
Then and now, I feel that a disproportionate number of those not being listened to are female. Certainly, more of the memoirs sent to me as a freelance editor are written by women. Why? Is it that personal stories are more valued by women, and therefore more of them are waiting to be heard? Is it that in many cultures, women’s lives are not cherished and are easily forgotten? Or is it that, for one reason or another, men are given more opportunities to tell their stories?
Whatever the case, I still eagerly listen to people of all ages and genders. So it is that, in the community where I live, many find themselves over a meal or a cup of tea, telling me, “I don’t usually talk about these things but….”
Then hours, perhaps days later, our conversation will wind down with familiar words….“Wow, I didn’t know I had so much to say. Thank you for listening.”
~APH: Life, Stories, People~
About today’s contributor: Penelope Franklin is a writer/editor, writing coach, and personal historian in New York City. She teaches memoir- and journal-writing workshops, and edits all types of nonfiction. She specializes in memoirs and other first-person writings, with an emphasis on developing each client’s unique voice. Her clients include many new authors as well as established ones. She has also written feature stories and essays for a variety of publications, including numerous articles for the United Nations on international subjects.
Editor’s Note: This post was written on topic for Blog Action Day 2013. A second post on the topic of Human Rights will be published here next week.