Reading Gloria Steinem’s book, “My Life On the Road,” for a book discussion group several years ago prompted one member to text me that she had left the meeting with the desire to take a journey in the sense that she wanted to listen better.
“How do I listen better?” she asked herself. Then it struck her that was the wrong question because the focus was still on one’s self.
Steinem, the famous co-founder of Ms. Magazine in 1972, has pages of accomplishments as a feminist, journalist, lecturer and social and political activist. She spent her life traveling, beginning with a vagabond childhood with her father. And what she has done all her life, in all her travels, is listen. Listening, she said, is a way of letting strangers’ stories flow out of our heads and into our hearts.
Traveling and listening, she gained wisdom from cab drivers, other plane passengers, strangers at rural diners and truck stops.
Steinem was not interested in herself, my friend observed. She was interested in other people. This makes a good listener.
“Perhaps I am not a good listener,” she posited, “because some talk bores me stiff, particularly at meetings where it takes forever to decide something and there are interminable personal stories that interest no one.”
I don’t think that was the kind of listening Steinem practiced. Hers were often random encounters with strangers, like a convoy of motorcyclists she just happened to meet and was at first frightened.
But what she valued most of all were talking circles — informal groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.
“If I had to name the most important discovery of my life,” she wrote, “it would be the portable community of talking circles.”
Playwright Lynn Nottage spent 2½ years listening to residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, before writing her play, “Sweat.”
At a spring political meeting, much of the discussion centered around how to convince young people to get involved. Over and over we heard, “We need to listen to what they say.” After the meeting, which very few young people attended, people stood around in groups, talking. “Older people talk too much,” someone said. “We need to talk less and listen more.”
Myself, I have been a listener since I was 5 years old and started running the switchboard in Daddy’s telephone office in our house.
“You can listen,” Daddy said sternly, “but you can never repeat anything you ever hear.”
Then it occurred to me that listening in for all those years at the switchboard is a whole different experience than listening to. There’s no interaction in listening in. In listening to, the speaker is aware of you as a listener. It’s personal.
But listening in did inspire me to a lifelong curiosity about everybody I encounter. It extended even to my own family.
“Has mom interviewed you yet?” my grown children ask each other on holidays home.
“Mary, you’d talk to a post!” my traveling companion through 10 countries would declare irritably as she’d wait for me to conclude still another conversation with still another stranger.
In the intensely polarized America of today, perhaps more listening in the manner of Gloria Steinem would make us less bombastic, judgmental and self-righteous.
Mary McClure lives in Lawton and writes a weekly column for The Lawton Constitution.