I remember very clearly the day my sister – my Pineapple Head – admit to me that she knew she was an addict. It had been at least 10 years since I had known and realised that the morphine she had been prescribed had gone beyond it’s remit to relieve pain and had become an all consuming obsession; 10 years of walking that razor sharp line between hopefully-not-enabling and wanting-to-take-all-the-pain-away. I remember that I hugged her, and told that it was brave of her to recognise it and say it aloud.
And then she looked at me, her eyes filling up with anger, and a kind of shocking, gaping grief. She told me that she had tried to tell our Mum, and it had gone badly. “How can I tell anything else now?”
I really didn’t know what to say, because I knew what she meant by ‘anything else.’ Her secret identity , which she would never admit to anyone else. Pineapple Head longed to be listened to. She ached for it, she desired it almost as much as she desired the drugs – and she could talk the hind legs off a donkey. But though she could talk endlessly, she would avoid saying what she longed to say, because she was terrified that ‘it’ would happen again.
For Pineapple Head, the experience of others hearing her and then shutting down and turning against her, or re-writing what she had said, or ignoring what had been said was a far too common experience. Mostly she wasn’t heard. And if she was heard, she rarely experienced anyone truly listening. People spoke about her – or at least, the person they needed to construct in their minds in order to ‘cope’ with her. Each time it happened, I watched a little bit more of my sister become erased, a little bit more of who she was subsumed into other peoples expectations, another piece of her exchanged for someone else’s idea of who they thought she ought to be. And fear became a more constant, clingy and needful companion.
All through that, and in the years that followed I learnt this – it is not enough to be heard; and I began to understand something else – it is damaging to speak about that of which you know nothing and choose to know less.
A little while ago I was at a 3 day assessment thing (kind of an extended interview for vocational training with the Church Army) with several other people, and one of them particularly made an impression on me, because of the way he listened. It was active listening in a way that was physical as much as it was spiritual and emotional – he seemed to listen with his whole body. It was remarkable. It wasn’t creepy at all, in fact he was incredibly respectful – it was just that when you spoke to him, he beheld you with his ears as much as with his mind.
It did not surprise me to learn that he was a highly respected pastoral worker in his community and a very effective evangelist: he did not just acknowledge people, acknowledge where they were in their lives – he genuinely respected people enough to listen to them, to their stories. It was a powerful demonstration of beholding through listening, and of his Christian faith.
The importance, the power, the respect and the love carried in the act of listening was evidenced on my twitter time line again today. Mid way through the afternoon Dianna Anderson – who blogs over at Faith and Feminism – tweeted out a ‘donotlink’ to an article in Christianity Today (CT):