Inside Out | It's a small but poignant gesture

Posted: July 09, 2007

My last column was about four words I believed could make the world a better place. If a person could simply say to another, "Tell me your story," and then listen quietly, both people would change. Within days, I received hundreds of letters requesting "Tell Me Your Story" bumper stickers I'd promised free, and almost as many e-mails - all from people wanting to join a movement that could change the planet through the listening to others' stories.

A woman in Montgomery County said she wanted to open a coffeehouse where people would come just to listen to one another's stories. She'd call it "Cup of Grace." A dental hygienist in New Jersey said she used to ask her patients how they were doing. After facing colon cancer, however, she became a better, more caring listener. Now she asks patients to tell her their stories. She told me she keeps a journal filled with some of the incredibly touching and open stories she has heard. Several writers said the most stressful part of their jobs is that they don't have time to really listen to people. Loraine, 83, wrote, requesting a bumper sticker and then told me her story about the loss of a brother in World War II.

Nancy, a sign-language interpreter, told me that when she has heard the stories of people who are deaf and hard of hearing, she's been awestruck by their courage. And then she realized something: Their stories are no more incredible than many other people's. She said she imagined that deaf people benefited from her listening because they live in a world where many people don't take the time to hear their stories. But isn't that the case with all of us? Furthermore, don't we all - at least, all of us who ask - share Nancy's experience that the stories she hears change her in ways she can't explain?

Many correspondents asked if I would tell my story. Of course, I've had the honor of telling it through my writings and radio show. But here is my listening story:

Many years ago, I wrote about how an act of compassionate listening saved my life. It was shortly after my 1979 accident. I was feeling useless, worthless and hopeless. I didn't want to continue my life as a quadriplegic. That evening, a nurse - someone who also was in great despair - approached me. Knowing I was a psychologist, she asked if she could talk to me.

It is said that King Solomon used to pray for the ability to hear with his heart. For the time we spent together, I heard that nurse with my heart. I understood her suffering, and she knew it. At the end of our conversation, her telling, my listening, I recommended a therapist and she thanked me. My feelings about my life and my future changed after that interaction because I knew I had been able to contribute to the welfare of another human being by simply listening.

Most readers who wrote in over the last two weeks discussed the value of listening. But I'd like you to tell me your stories. What is it like to live inside your skin? What do you most want people to understand about you? My radio show will be on this topic next Monday. Or you can send me a brief e-mail, ideally a few hundred words. I'll post some on my Web site.

By the way, I just ordered another batch of bumper stickers, so feel free to write in (with a stamped, self-addressed envelope) and get yours.

Reach family therapist Dan Gottlieb at WHYY, 150 N. Sixth St., Philadelphia 19106 or Listen to his radio program Mondays at noon on WHYY-FM (90.9).

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