A lot of evil is done in the world by people who can’t imagine that they have any power to hurt anyone. It’s their sense that nothing is at stake in their behaviour towards others that leads them to ignore the rules of politeness and humanity – and to kick people as if they were plated in armour.
They are – in this respect – paying homage to childhood. Think of the situation of a young child, of perhaps six, who has fun mocking a parent’s double chin or the wrinkles around their eyes. To this child, the parent is still, in many ways, an invulnerable deity. They live in a remote, impressive world of work, credit cards, driving and the news. How could someone of such stature be hurt by a comment about their less than perfect physique by a tiny person who can’t spell properly?
But the child is missing the point. Their words do hurt. They can make their parents cry (in private). The child simply can’t grasp how desperate and anxious their parent might be, how every morning they might stare in dismay into the bathroom mirror at the visible signs of ageing that speak to them relentlessly of a wrongly lived-life. The parent, out of dignified generosity, has shielded their child from their own fragility. And now their child is paying them a beautiful if misguided, compliment: a belief that they are beyond suffering.
Something related may happen when employees get together to gossip about the person they work for. In their imagination, the boss is so far above them that it couldn’t possibly matter what they say about them. It’s only when they themselves move to senior positions that they start to realise how vulnerable the person in charge might feel, how completely normal it is to want to be liked (even if you have a seat on the board) and how imperfect your self-esteem might be.
This idea casts a useful light on the activity of particularly dangerous people online. Their venom isn’t the expression of a feeling of power. Rather, the troll tends to feel like a medieval vagabond outside a heavily fortified city, hurling insults and threats at what they take to be comfortable inhabitants sleeping behind meters of stone walls lined by vigilant troops. They want to hurt, but they don’t in any way actually imagine they can; that is what renders them quite so vicious.
True kindness may require us to take on board a very unfamiliar idea: however young we are, however forgotten and ignored we feel we are, we have a power to cause other people serious damage. It isn’t because we aren’t wealthy or revered in elite circles that we thereby lose a capacity either to comfort or to wound strangers. We become properly moral, and properly adult, when we understand that we may all, whoever we may be, ruin someone’s day, and on occasion, through a few incautious and misplaced words, their life.
For many of us, whenever we feel substantially scared, sad, anxious or lonely, the last thing we would ever think of doing is to share our distress; a confession threatens to make an already difficult situation untenable. We assume that our best chance of defending ourselves and recovering our self-possession is to say nothing whatsoever. So when we are sad at a gathering of friends, we smile. When we are terrified before a speech, we try to change the subject. When we’re asked how we’re coping, we say very well indeed, thank you. We aren’t deliberately out to deceive; we’re practicing the only manoeuvre we know and trust in response to our vulnerability.
What we fear above of all is judgement. We are social creatures who have, somewhere along the way, come to equate being accepted with appearing poised. We assume that we could not both explain what is really going on inside us and survive unblemished. In our eyes, the price of safety is the maintenance of a permanent semblance of composure.
Yet there might be an alternative to this punishing and ultimately hugely isolating philosophy: an idea that at moments of fear, sadness, anxiety and loneliness, rather than insisting on our well-being, we might go in precisely the opposite direction; we might reveal that things really aren’t perfect for us, that we’re pretty scared right now, that we’re finding it hard to talk to people or maintain faith in the future; that we feel anxious and in need of company.
Though our instincts might be hugely alarmed at the prospect of making any such divulgements, we might arrive at some surprising discoveries if we did so: that we immediately felt lighter and less oppressed; that our connection with those around us was significantly deepened by sharing more of the turmoil of our inner lives – and most unexpectedly of all, that the revelation of our vulnerability could make us appear stronger rather than weaker in the eyes of others.
Some of our regrettable furtiveness comes from imagining that all disclosures of fear, sadness, anxiety and loneliness must be the same. But this is to ignore a critical difference between a revelation which comes across as an insistent, desperate demand for rescue, and one which frames a problem with an attitude of sober sad dignity. There is a distinction between begging never to be left alone again and disclosing that one’s been finding one’s evenings quite quiet of late. There can be a firm and dependable barrier between neediness and vulnerability.
Furthermore, rather than merely not threatening our dignity, revelation may be the very ingredient that enhances it. However impressive it may superficially be never to show weakness of any kind, it is a good deal more impressive to have the courage, psychological insight and self-discipline to talk about one’s weaknesses in a boundaried and contained way. It is the mark of a real adult to be able to disclose, with a mixture of aplomb and tact, aspects of one’s childlike self: that one’s been going through a dreadful time, really doesn’t want to be here, or is very worried about seeming like an idiot. True toughness isn’t about holding on to a facade of military robustness, rather about an artful negotiation with, and unfrightened acceptance, of one’s regressive, dependent aspects.
The ability to pull off this feat relies on holding on to a further piece of maturity: a knowledge that everyone is, at heart, as scared, sad, lonely and anxious as we ourselves are. Even if they are choosing not to let on about any of this, we can feel confident in making an empathetic leap of faith that they are doing so not because they are fundamentally different and more robustly constituted than us, but because they are scared – and because we are all collectively hemmed in by an image of what it means to be serious adults that doesn’t allow us to share a sufficient degree of our vulnerable reality (and thereby makes us all collectively sick and alienated from ourselves and from one another). We should accept that it is very normal to be lonely, though everyone is meant to have all the friends they need; and that it is very normal to be sick with worry, even though we’re meant to have a steady faith in the future. In revealing our weaknesses, we aren’t owning up to a freakish possibility, we are proving we are like our audiences in their true, but hitherto needlessly hidden, reality; we are somersaulting over a social barrier and generously creating room in which others too may one day come to feel safe enough to show their fragility and humanity.
Far more than we’re inclined, we can lean into our fears rather than treating them as shameful enemies. Every confession, ably executed, alleviates rather than enforces our burdens. Rather than seeing the world as an entity we must constantly impress (and our reality as something we must perpetually hide), we can dare to imagine that others would not mind us living with a little more of our true selves on show – and that there might at times be nothing more generous or impressive we could offer our neighbours than a tranquil disclosure of our feelings of sadness, isolation, worry and existential despair.
It is a mark of character to be thought of as someone that others can safely confide in; there is a high degree of empathy, generosity and open-mindedness implied in being the person that friends instinctively turn to when everything has gone dark.
But we may come to realise that, despite our best intentions, often others do not quite see us in this way. If we ask them directly what the matter is, they try to look cheerful and insist that everything is fine. We know it can’t be but nor do they seem inclined to open up to us. We end up lonely and a little helpless.
There are plenty of good reasons why people tend to show extreme care before opening up. A confidant may turn out to be patronising, alarmist, sentimental, panic-inducing or moralistic. The dangers of humiliation can be acute. To dare to confide, we need a strong feeling that our companion is going to be unreservedly understanding, gentle and kindly. But even if we feel ready to be all these things, how do we signal our capacities properly to others?
The almost touchingly obvious method is via direct assertion. We might say: don’t worry, I won’t judge or simply: you can tell me, I’m very understanding. Kind though such statements may be, they can’t generally help because they don’t touch the core fear that – whatever we may say – we may still turn out to be disturbed by, or hostile to, the details of actual revelations.
The more skilled approach requires a greater degree of courage on our part. It involves regularly admitting to something difficult and troubling and rather shameful about ourselves. It’s by letting others know something of our own vulnerabilities that we free them up to share some of the things they are terrified of admitting in their lives. Our revelation proves far better than a headline statement that we are reliable because we know from the inside what it’s like to carry a dreadful secret and to feel frightened of another person’s reaction to it. We’re demonstrating a crucial idea: that we won’t turn on them because we’ve trusted them not to turn on us.
The process of building up trust often functions in an incremental way: we reveal a small and not too awful fact about us, and the other then starts to share a little of what’s going on for them. From there, we take a bolder step of admitting to something more significantly awkward: something we know could be seen as really not very acceptable. We’re inviting the other to follow us in turn and to feel secure in opening their hearts yet wider.
The underlying idea is that in order to demonstrate our position as an empathetic receiver of confidences, we have to show our broken and flawed sides: we’ve failed, so another can tell us of their failure; we’ve been hurt so, they can admit to being hurt; we’ve done, and admitted we’ve done, very stupid things so we’re not going to turn against those who have also been at points very silly.
To be a good companion, it isn’t enough simply to be polite or to commiserate. We need to take a risk. We need to give our friends something they could use against us – so that they can feel safe in giving us something we might use against them. Under the umbrella of mutually assured destruction, real trust and friendship can then flourish.
Life continually requires that we write down a few words of thanks: for holidays, meals, presents or people’s place in our hearts. However, too often, our messages end up flat or somewhat unconvincing; we say that the dinner was ‘wonderful’, the present ‘brilliant’ and the holiday ‘the best ever’, all of which may be true while failing to get at what truly touched or moved us.
To render our messages more effective, we might take a lesson from an unexpected quarter: the history of art. Many paintings and poems are in effect a series of thank you notes to parts of the world. They are thank yous for the sunset in springtime, a river valley at dawn, the last days of autumn or the face of a loved one. What distinguishes great from mediocre art is in large measure the level of detail with which the world has been studied. A talented artist is, first and foremost, someone who takes us into the specifics of the reasons why an experience or place felt valuable. They don’t merely tell us that spring is ‘nice’, they zero in on the particular contributing factors to this niceness: leaves that have the softness of a newborn’s hands, the contrast between a warm sun and a sharp breeze, the plaintive cry of baby blackbirds.
The more the poet moves from generalities to specifics, the more the scene comes alive in our minds. The same holds true in painting. A great painter goes beneath a general impression of pleasure in order to select and emphasise the truly attractive features of the landscape: they show the sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees and reflecting off of a pool of water in the road; they draw attention to the craggy upper slopes of a mountain or the way a sequence of ridges and valleys open up in the distance. They’ve asked themselves with unusual rigour what is it that they particularly appreciated about a scene and faithfully transcribed their salient impressions.
Some of the reason why great artists are rare is that our minds are not well set up to understand why we feel as we do. We register our emotions in broad strokes and derive an overall sense of our moods long before we grasp the basis upon which they rest. We are bad at travelling upstream from our impressions to their source, it feels frustrating to have to ask too directly what was really pleasing about a present or why exactly a person seemed charming to have dinner with.
But we can be confident that if our minds have been affected, the reasons why they have been so will be lodged somewhere in consciousness as well, waiting to be uncovered with deftness and patience. We stand to realise that it wasn’t so much that the food was ‘delicious’ but that the potatoes in particular had an intriguing rosemary and garlic flavour to them. A friend wasn’t just ‘nice’; they brought a hugely sensitive and generous tone to bear in asking us what it had been like for us in adolescence after our dad died. And the camera wasn’t just a ‘great present’; it has an immensely satisfying rubbery grip and a reassuringly clunky shutter sound that evokes a sturdier, better older world. The details will be there, waiting for us to catch them through our mental sieve.
Praise works best the more specific it can be. We know this in love; the more a partner can say what it is they appreciate about us, the more real their affection can feel. It is when they’ve studied the shape of our fingers, when they’ve recognised and appreciated the quirks of our character, when they’ve clocked the words we like or the way we end a phone call that the praise starts to count. The person who has given a dinner party or sent us a present is no different. They too hunger for praise in its specific rather than general forms. We don’t have to be great artists to send effective thank you notes: we just need to locate and hold on tightly to two or three highly detailed reasons for our gratitude.
Being a good listener is one of the most important and enchanting life-skills anyone can have. Yet, few of us know how to do it, not because we are evil, but because no one has taught us how and – a related point – few have listened sufficiently well to us. So we come to social life greedy to speak rather than listen, hungry to meet others, but reluctant to hear them. Friendship degenerates into a socialised egoism.
Like most things, the answer lies in education. Our civilisation is full of great books on how to speak – Cicero’s Orator and Aristotle’s Rhetoric were two of the greatest in the ancient world – but sadly no one has ever written a book called ‘The Listener’. There are a range of things that the good listener is doing that makes it so nice to spend time in their company.
Without necessarily quite realising it, we’re often propelled into conversation by something that feels both urgent and somehow undefined. We’re bothered at work, we’re toying with more ambitious career moves, we’re not sure if so and so is right for us; a relationship is in difficulties; we’re fretting about something or feeling a bit low about life in general (without being able to put a finger on exactly what’s wrong); or perhaps we’re very excited and enthusiastic about something – though the reasons for our passion are tricky to pin down.
At heart, all these are issues in search of elucidation. The good listener knows that we’d ideally move – via conversation with another person – from a confused agitated state of mind to one that was more focused and (hopefully) more serene. Together with them we’d work out what us really at stake. But, in reality, this tends not to happen because there isn’t enough of an awareness of the desire and need for clarification within conversation. There aren’t enough good listeners. So people tend to assert rather than analyse. They restate in many different ways the fact that they are worried, excited, sad or hopeful, and their interlocutor listens but doesn’t assist them to discover more.
Good listeners fight against this with a range of conversational gambits. They hover as the other speaks: they offer encouraging little remarks of support, they make gentle positive gestures: a sigh of sympathy, a nod of encouragement, a strategic ‘hmm’ of interest. All the time they are egging the other to go deeper into issues. They love saying: ‘tell me more about …’; ‘I was fascinated when you said ..’; ‘why did that happen, do you think?’ or ‘how did you feel about that?’
The good listener takes it for granted that they will encounter vagueness in the conversation of others. But they don’t condemn, rush or get impatient, because they see vagueness as a universal and highly significant trouble of the mind that it is the task of a true friend to help with. The good listener never forgets how hard – and how important – it is to know our own minds. Often, we’re in the vicinity of something, but we can’t quite close in on what’s really bothering or exciting us. The good listener knows we hugely benefit from encouragement to elaborate, to go into greater detail, to push a little further. We need someone who, rather than launch forth, will simply say two magic rare words: Go on…
You mention a sibling and they want to know a bit more. What was the relationship like in childhood, how has it changed over time. They’re curious where our concerns and excitements come from. They ask thing like: why did that particularly bother you? Why was that such a big thing for you? They keep our histories in mind, they might refer back to something we said before and we feel they’re building up a deeper base of engagement.
It’s fatally easy to say vague things: we simply mention that something is lovely or terrible, nice or annoying. But we don’t really explore why we feel this way. The good listener has a productive, friendly suspicion of some of our own first statements and is after the deeper attitudes that are lurking in the background. They take things we say like ‘I’m fed up with my job’ or ‘My partner and I are having a lot of rows…’ and help us to concentrate on what it really is about the job we don’t like or what the rows might deep down be about.
They’re bringing to listening an ambition to clear up underlying issues. They don’t just see conversation as the swapping of anecdotes. They are reconnecting the chat you’re having over pizza with the philosophical ambitions of Socrates, whose dialogues are records of his attempts to help his fellow Athenians understand and examine their own underlying ideas and values.
A key move of the good listener is not always to follow every byway or sub-plot that the speaker introduces, for they may be getting lost and further from their own point than they would themselves wish. The good listener is helpfully suspicious, knowing that their purpose is to focus the fundamental themes of the speaker, rather than veering off with them into every side road. They are always looking to take the speaker back to their last reasonable point – saying, ‘Yes, yes, but you were saying just a moment ago..’. Or, ‘So ultimately, what do you think it was about…’ The good listener (paradoxically) is a skilled interrupter. But they don’t (as most people do) interrupt to intrude their own ideas; they interrupt to help the other get back to their original more sincere, yet elusive concerns.
The good listener doesn’t moralise. They know their own minds well enough not to be surprised or frightened by strangeness. They know how insane we all are. That’s why others can feel comfortable being heard by them. They give the impression they recognise and accept our follies; they don’t flinch when we mention a particular desire. They reassure us they’re not going to shred our dignity. A big worry in a competitive world is that we feel we can’t afford to be honest about how distressed or obsessed we are. Saying one feels like a failure or a pervert could mean being dropped. The good listener signals early and clearly that they don’t see us in these terms. Our vulnerability is something they warm to rather than are appalled by. It is only too easy to end up experiencing ourselves as strangely cursed and exceptionally deviant or uniquely incapable. But the good listener makes their own strategic confessions, so as to set the record straight about the meaning of being a normal (that is very muddled and radically imperfect) human being. They confess not so much to unburden themselves as to help others accept their own nature and see that being a bad parent, a poor lover, a confused worker are not malignant acts of wickedness, but ordinary features of being alive that others have unfairly edited out of their public profiles.
When we’re in the company of people who listen well, we experience a very powerful pleasure, but too often, we don’t really realise what it is about what this person is doing that is so nice. By paying strategic attention to our feelings of satisfaction, we can learn to magnify them and offer them to others, who will notice, heal – and repay the favour in turn. Listening deserves discovery as one of the keys to a good society.
Comment sections online should be the beautiful public squares of our democracies: places we navigate to for frank and thoughtful exchanges of ideas; places where we learn to understand each other’s point of view and where serious discussions evolve over time.
But, of course, they are havens of the grossest abuse, verbal violence and cruelty. It’s understandable if we sometimes conclude, after time reading comments, that humanity has lost its way.
But there’s another explanation: The source of dismissive and rude remarks and frustrating discussions isn’t bad people: it’s that commenting isn’t something we’re naturally or automatically very good at. It is, however, a learnable skill. In fact, everyone online is almost always trying to do something important, but just going about it in a hugely unfortunate way.
So for example:
We want to communicate an urgent, and sometimes well-founded belief that another person is mistaken
So what we too quickly say is: You are a fucking idiot who can jerk off with my shit.
But what we could learn to say, given that no one ever learns anything under conditions of humiliation, is a more effective: I wonder if you might have missed something that feels important from where I am positioned…
We want to stand up for clarity and common sense by admitting that we didn’t understand something another person said
And so we say: Wtf motherfucker
But it could be a revolutionary move, with huge influence on the way other people start to think one could and should behave online, to say: I found it at points a little hard to follow your train of thought, yet deeply respect your underlying intentions…
We want to convey immense disappointment
So we say: I used to like what you do; but now I think you’re a phoney and a total fraud. Unsubbed, wanker.
But we could say: I’m puzzled because I generally very much admire you and I don’t entirely see the point of what you seem to be doing now. It would be lovely if you could perhaps explain things from your no doubt very legitimate perspective.
Sometimes we simply want to exorcise the humiliation that a cold and indifferent world has doled out to us
So, at our keyboard in the middle of the night, with the odd freight train whistling in the darkness outside, we say: Suck it up bitches; bunch of fucking wankers spewing bullshit from your own anuses…
When what we could learn to say, from our isolated bedrooms, is: I sometimes feel so sad and alone…
Let’s remember that no one is ever brutal or cruel online by their ultimate free choice. They are so because they are hurt, damaged, alone and afraid – and because no one has been kind or good to them for a long time. Behind every online outburst, there’s always a complex, painful backstory (which we will mostly never know but which we can be sure is there) which has made it impossible for the commenter to feel they can be realistic, reasonable or civil.
People get rude too, because – in their very isolation and powerlessness – it is impossible for them to believe that others out there could be vulnerable to their insults. Their rudeness is grounded on a disbelief that strangers could take them seriously and might be tipped over into inner collapse, despair and self-hatred because of them. Such is their background feeling of impotence, the troll has forgotten their own power.
After spending a while in the comments sections, it can be easy to to form the belief that humans have grown into monsters. The good news is that even though comments claim to reflect how the world is, they in fact represent only the fringe views of a tiny percentage. They induct us to forget the vast invisible army of moderate, reasonable, kind not terribly opinionated individuals who are just standing by in silence, as appalled as we are. The world is much saner than it appears.
The real achievement would be to build an online world every bit as kind, patient and good as most of us are in our real lives at every moment of every day.
One of the kindest, most helpful and most interesting things we can ever do with another person is to listen to them well. But good listening doesn’t just involve paying attention to what someone is saying. There’s a far more active side to the listening process which could properly be referred to as ‘editing’ – because it is in key ways highly similar to the work done for an author by an ideal literary editor.
Classically, a good editor doesn’t merely accept a manuscript as it is first presented. They set about interrogating, cutting, expanding and focusing the text – not in the name of changing the fundamentals of what the author is saying, but rather of bringing out a range of underlying intentions which have been threatened by digressions, hesitations, losses of confidence and lapses of attention. The editor doesn’t change the author into someone else: they help them to become who they really are.
The same process is at work with a good listener. They too know that some of what a speaker is saying doesn’t accurately reflect what they truly mean. Perhaps they want to touch on a sensitive, sad point, but are frightened of being too heavy or of imposing. Maybe the speaker wants to pin down why something was beautiful or exciting, but are getting bogged down in details, repetitions or subplots. There might be an emotional truth they’re trying to express but the quality of their insight is undermined by the feeling that it would be more normal and safer to stick to factual details.
All these tendencies, a good editorially minded listener knows how gently to correct. They will in the kindest way possible ask the speaker to unpack their feelings more intensely and elaborate upon emotions with a sense that these will prove hugely interesting rather than boring or alarming to the audience. They help the speaker to close down stray subplots, and nudge them back to the central story, which has been lost in details. When the speaker gets tongue-tied from fear, the good editor-listener is on hand with reassurance and encouragement. They know how to signal an open mind and hint at a welcome berth for all manner of unusual-sounding but important confessions.
The good editor-listener will in the end be responsible for a lot of changes in a conversation. Were it to be transcribed and manually edited, there would be red pencil marks everywhere across the text. But the result of such interventions is never a sense of violation, rather an impression of having been – through another’s deft work – brought closer to one’s real intentions. An ideal editor-listener helps us to be more ourselves than we know how to be by ourselves.
Flattery has a bad name. It’s associated with saying something upbeat but untrue in order to hoodwink its unsuspecting target for low personal gain. In Aesop’s famous fable, The Fox and the Crow, an ugly crow has found a piece of cheese and retired to a branch to eat it. A sly fox, wanting it for himself, flatters the crow, calling it beautiful and wondering whether its voice will be as sweet as its appearance. The crow lets out a horrific screeching sound and the cheese drops straight into the fox’s gaping expectant mocking jaw.
But there’s another form of flattery with more valuable and ethical ambitions. Parents of small children invariably discover its uses – which deserve to be better known and practiced around all age groups. Let’s imagine that a child isn’t yet entirely kind to their brother, or good at drawing, or a perfect cook or helpful around the house – but the parent declares that they are so as to encourage and make more concrete what is as yet only tentative and fragile in their ambivalent nature. The child is being helped to end up as some of the things he has already been described as being.
In 1956, the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was invited to create a new capital city for his nation: Brasilia.
An advance fragment of Brazil in 2095
National Congress, Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer (designed 1956)
Brazil is a country of frenetic economic activity, of rainforest and Amazonian villages, favelas, soccer, beaches and intense disagreement about political priorities… none of which is apparent from contemplation of the beautiful, serene, futuristic rational architecture of Brasilia. One day, the buildings propose, Brazil will be a place where rationality is powerful; where order and harmony reign; where elegance is normal. There will be no more corruption or chaos. In offices, efficient secretaries will type up judicious briefing notes; the filing systems will be perfect – nothing will get lost, overlooked, neglected or mislaid; negotiations will take place in an atmosphere of impersonal wisdom. The country will be perfectly managed.
Oscar Niemeyer’s capital is an essay in flattery. It hints that certain desirable qualities which are as yet only very latent could one day be central to the country and its governing class. Shortly after the capital buildings were completed, a journalist asked Niemeyer why he had designed a capital that was so dramatically unlike the country it was meant to represent.
‘It won’t be one day,’ said Niemeyer – with a wry smile. Brazilians continue to wait. And the finest buildings of Brasilia continue to inspire.
We need flattery because we so badly need to be guided to develop beyond what we are right now. We need other people’s belief in us to bolster our capacities for reform and growth.
We need a chance to grow into the person we have flatteringly been described as already being.
A guide to honourable defeat
Diego Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda
Consider a painting by Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda. There’s been a battle between Spain and the Netherlands. Spain has won. The picture shows the Spanish general, Spinola receiving the key to the city of Breda from the representative of the defeated Dutch forces, Justin of Nassau.
What’s striking is how cordial everything is. Historians report that both sides behaved extremely well. There was no recrimination or wanton bloodshed. The painting is a memorial to unusually noble conduct. But it’s not a comprehensive or accurate account of war or sieges; just as Brasilia is not a completely accurate presentation of what Brazil is like. Instead, each of these works presents an ideal in the hope of generating a subsequent reality.
We should learn to be gentler on flattery and the energy it can lend us to move towards greater generosity, intelligence and wisdom. We should use its benign power in order to bring about a world where we’ll more often be able simply to praise one another, and no longer merely to flatter.
At moments of sorrow and exhaustion, it is only too easy to look back over the years and feel that our lives have, in essence, been meaningless. We take stock of just how much has gone wrong: how many errors there have been; how many unfulfilled plans and frustrated dreams we’ve had. We may feel like the distraught, damned Macbeth who, on learning of his wife’s death, exclaims at a pitch of agony that man is a cursed creature who:
…struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. [Life] is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5
No life can avoid an intermittently high degree of ‘sound and fury.’ The question is whether it must also, ultimately, signify nothing. As Macbeth’s lines hint, this will depend on who is telling it. In the hands of Shakespeare’s (bracingly termed) ‘idiot’, the story of a life may well turn into unintelligible and dispiriting gibberish. But with sufficient compassion and insight, we may equally be able to make something different and a great deal more meaningful and redemptive out of the same material.
The difference between despair and hope is just a different way of telling stories from the same set of facts.
Only a small number of us ever self-consciously write our autobiographies. It is a task we associate with celebrities and the very old – but it is, in the background, a universal activity. We may not be publishing our stories, but we are writing them in our minds nevertheless. Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going and why events happened as they did.
Many of us are strikingly harsh narrators of these life stories. We hint to ourselves that we’ve been morons from the beginning. We’ve stuffed up big time. It’s been one disaster after another. That’s how we go about narrating, especially late at night, when our reserves of optimism run dry and the demons return.
Yet there is nothing necessary about our self-flagellating methods of narration. There could always be ways of telling very different, far kinder, and more balanced stories from the very same sets of facts. You could give your life story to Dostoevsky, Proust or Jesus and come out with a rather bearable, moving, tender and noble story.
Good – by which is meant fair-minded and judicious – narrators know that lives can be meaningful even when they involve a lot of failure and humiliation. Mistakes do not have to be absurd; they can be signs of how little information we have on which to base the most consequential decisions. Messing up isn’t a sign of evil; it’s evidence of what we’re up against.
Not all the disasters were wasted anyway. Maybe we spent a decade not quite knowing what we wanted to do with ourselves professionally. Maybe we went through a succession of failed relationships that left us confused and hurt a lot of people. But these experiences weren’t meaningless because they were necessary to later development and maturity. We needed the career crisis to understand our working identities; we had to fail at love to fathom our hearts. No one gets anywhere important in one go. We can forgive ourselves the horrors of our first drafts.
The good storyteller recognises – contrary to certain impressions – that the central character of the story isn’t always responsible for every calamity or triumph. We are never the sole authors of anything that happens to us. Sometimes, it really will be the economy, our parents, the government, our enemies or simply the tragic dimensions of human existence. Good narrators don’t over-personalise.
Every day, we are induced to narrate a bit our life story to ourselves: we explain why there was pain, why we forgot to seize a chance and why we’re in an unhappy situation.
It does not need to be a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing. It can be a tale told by a kind, intelligent soul signifying rather a lot: like almost every life story, it is in truth a tale of a well-intentioned, flawed, partially blind, self-deceived but ultimately dignified and good human struggling against enormous odds and, sometimes, on a good day, succeeding just a little in a few areas.
Many of us probably have a nagging feeling that we don’t listen enough to other people. Here we’re not going to make the guilt worse by telling you that listening is a good thing, worthy but in fact rather dull.
We’re going to show you that listening to others is first and foremost an interesting thing to do, something that could be as pleasurable for you as it is for your speaking companion.
And as a result, we try to minimise how much we’re listening – and maximise how much we are talking – because that’s how it feels like we’ll have the most interesting lives.
But is this analysis of pleasure really accurate? Of course there is a basic pleasure to be had in, as we put it, ‘hearing the sound of our own voice’. But we can also venture that this isn’t the real pleasure of talking about ourselves. The real pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in understanding ourselves, becoming clearer about who we are, what we feel, what we want and what we might do next. The pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in self-clarification, not merely in hearing our voices.
Generally we tend to believe that Self-Clarification will only be possible if we ourselves actually talk. But something far more interesting and redemptive is the case: we can sometimes end up best understanding bits of ourselves by listening to the stories of other people.
This might sound like a merely convenient – and sentimental – thing to say. But it is soberly true and the proof lies in an area we know very well: literature. Novels are stories of other people that we don’t mind hearing; because they are also, at their best, stories that teach us about ourselves.
We’re prepared to spend hours hearing other people – like Tolstoy or Proust or Virginia Woolf – talking about their ideas and adventures. And remarkably, we don’t mind not getting a single word of our own into the arena because we’re actively understanding bits of ourselves by listening to their stories.
This is what Marcel Proust had to say on this: ‘Every reader of a novel is in effect the reader of his own life, whose shape he is better able to appreciate thanks to the spectacles which the novelist has offered him.’
We might well reply that this is all very well, but that the average person we have to listen to is a lot less interesting than Marcel Proust. So no wonder we want to listen to the novelist and not the average person.
But the people we have around us are a lot more interesting than we think – if we knew how to listen to them and edit them properly.
The reason why so-called great writers are interesting to listen to (even when they talk about themselves) is that they have mastered the trick of teasing out from their experiences what is Universally Relevant from what is Locally Specific.
So-called ‘great writers’ might be telling us a story about their aunt’s childhood or a trip to the woods, but in the way they tell us these things, they will be adept at teasing out the Universal Dimension – so that their stories end up being not just local anecdotes with no echoes in the minds of others, but Universal Stories that simultaneously narrate pages in the Universal book of Humankind: they end up being their stories and ours.
In truth, we are all living out stories in the Universal Book of Humankind. But we’re apt to describe this life so badly, to get so bogged down in local details and unnecessary digressions, that we bore our audiences, giving Listening to someone very negative associations. We haven’t got the wrong sort of life; we have the wrong techniques for narrating that life. And by narrating badly, we help to create an enduring suspicion of the act of having to listen to someone else speak.
Here is some of what goes wrong when we try to narrate our lives:
a) We keep latching onto factual details: we go on about times, places, external movements – not realising that things become interesting only when people say what they feel about what happened, not merely what happened.
b) We often get overwhelmed by an emotion we experienced and insist upon it rather than attempting to explain it. So we say, again and again, ‘it was so beautiful’ or ‘it was the scariest thing in the world’ but without accurately unpacking the feeling and thereby being able to make it live in someone else’s mind.
c) Just when we promise to get a bit interesting with our narration, we take fright. We get scared of our own emotions, which can threaten to trigger feelings of unbearable sadness, confusion and excitement. We take flight into superficiality.
d) Then we don’t stick with one story. There is so much in our minds, we keep opening up new subplots.
When the Good Listener encounters these unfortunate ways of talking, they don’t panic; they try to act like editors.
Being a good listener is like being a good editor in a publishing house. Consider the relationship between the American writer Raymond Carver, and his NY editor Gordon Lish.
The Editor: Gordon Lish The Writer: Raymond Carver
Lish heavily edited Carver – or, as we might put it, listened to him in a hugely creative and transformative way; a way that can teach us about the art of listening in ordinary life as well.
– Lish hugely boosted Carver’s confidence; he made him feel the world was listening and that it was worth properly unpacking experiences. He did the editorial equivalent of what in conversation we can call looking closely into someone’s eyes with tenderness and sympathy.
– He stopped Carver from descending into local tedium. He took Carver’s experiences in rural America and gave them a universal dimension, ensuring that Carver is now famous from Korea to Germany as well.
– He stopped Carver digressing; he kept him focused on a central theme in each story he wrote.
What we need to do as listeners is a version of what Lish did for Carver. In listening, we can also shape, tease out, cut out, emphasise – in the name of getting the latent really good story to emerge from our companion’s mind.
So when listening, stop your companion digressing; say things like, ‘So a minute ago you were saying that….’ Bring them back to the last coherent and emotionally ‘alive’ part of the story.
Draw them away from numb surface details to deeper emotional realities. Ask: ‘what did that feel like for you…?’
Allow for the unusual and the weird. Use signs that suggest an open mind. Maybe someone is about to say that they felt attracted to their sister or stole money from a company. Don’t do anything that might close off a vulnerable confession. ‘Say go on…’ You’re not a judge, you’re a friend.
The Good Listener knows that one of the best ways to understand an issue in one’s own life is to hear it discussed through the life of someone else – and furthermore, they have the editing skills to make sure they can find themselves in the words of others.
That way, listening is no longer a chore. It’s about the most interesting thing we can do.