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Hear! Hear!

Posted in Adventures With Humans

Awausee Trail, Lake Superior

Sometime back in the 90’s, my then-husband and I attended a large, casual gathering at a friend’s house, set on a ravine north of the city. The house was lovely but small, so the many of us were crammed together in the living room/dining room area. The star guest on this afternoon was some director-of-note, and his gorgeous art-director wife. The wife seemed nice enough, friends with the hostess–one of the kindest people on the planet. The director sat on the sofa with two other guests, and the rest of us were scattered on chairs, a piano bench, and then standing nearby. Most of us were involved in some form of entertainment, and were curious to hear the director’s opinions on whatever. The thing was, it became obvious that he had an ego the size of a Swiss cruise ship. We were discussing computers and the internet, and I offered an add-on to a comment the director made. I launched it, expecting him to acknowledge and respond to what I had said as you would in a normal conversation between two adults. He said nothing, so I offered it again, thinking that perhaps he had not heard me. Still silence. Then, a third time, and by now, I was embarrassed. The room had been quiet, so I knew that his failure to respond wasn’t due to poor hearing. Instead, the popular man had decided that I wasn’t worthy of a response. It was awful. I wanted to disappear into the bowl of mixed nuts, but only so when he took a handful of them to snack on, I could lodge myself in his throat until he died. It wouldn’t have been an overwhelming intellectual challenge for him to respond to my comment; his silence was a choice. This is why, months later, I was delighted to hear that his wife had dumped him. Along with this, I wished a scourge of dysentery through his cruise ship ego, forever. I can be childish too, can’t I?
The need to be heard is part of our a basic humanness, a desire woven into our makeup along with the need for attachment, and the ability to parallel park during rush hour; we don’t consciously choose these drives, but they influence us deeply as we grow. Unmet needs result in children who might grow up to be arrogant directors, taking out their own brokenness on others at parties, like real bastards. Nobody wants to be a jerk, do they? It’s like nobody wants to be an addict. Early in life, while making a list of possible professions, nobody includes “jerk,” along with, “football player, doctor, or lawyer.” As Gabor Maté, the Canadian expert on trauma and addiction explains, the use of drugs or alcohol, is often a sane response to an insane world, and thus, addiction. Behaving like such a jerk, as our director subject, is maladaptive, usually woven into unbudgeable narcissism; generally unempathetic to the true feelings of others. Being an addict is a form self-soothing, of numbing pain. Being a jerk is a form of manipulation, of control over others in order to bolster your ego. When confronted by the behaviour of such a person, the best idea is to run away and not waste your time trying to change them. I was a fool to have repeated my comment three times. His dismissal stung, enough that I remember it. Now I know better.
There are times when not being heard isn’t so scarring, not such a big deal, is more irritating than anything monumental. A while back–as I am 60 now, many things are, “a while back,” I was helping a friend install art in a private space. There was a woman overseeing the install, and you know sometimes you can tell, or feel that there is hard energy in a place, or with certain people. My friend had asked me to come and help, so it wasn’t like I had barged into the space, winding off of the street with a, “So what’s going on here?” I was quiet, and doing my best to help; holding up frames, measuring, moving furniture. We were hanging the last piece, a framed photograph, and my friend was figuring out where to hammer in the picture hangar. He asked both the woman and I to estimate how far to one side he should set this piece. We both gave different measurements, both speaking clearly. My friend chose the other woman’s measurement. I was a bit annoyed, however once I saw the piece hung, I was childishly delighted to see that it was off center, and that my estimate would have been the better choice. I said nothing, but gloried in my righteousness for a few minutes, then let it go, except to write about it here, years later. I am so much less than perfect.
Earlier, I mentioned addiction, and in consideration of that experience, and any others where you suffer something unique to a group, but not the collective whole, support groups can offer the best settings for being heard, unmatched only of course, by one-on-one therapy. My own example is that of a survivors of suicide support group that I joined. The group was for people who had lost someone in their lives–not survived an attempt themselves as that’s a different intensity. I’ve mentioned before that my father committed suicide in 2004; his first attempt in 1972. I had realized that, outside of my own therapy, I found it difficult to parse through my ever-changing emotions around my father’s struggles. After one frustrating phone call with a friend, while I was feeling rather unstable and dark, I realized that I needed my own community where I could be heard in the way that was more nuanced. I joined this group in the winter of 2023, almost twenty years since my father’s death; who knew I would still be grappling with such a trauma. I liked the group very much. Most participants had suffered their losses more recently, and I was happy to be able to hold space for them, aware of the flavours of pain they might be feeling in the moment. Yes, I described my own scenario, but for most of the meetings, I really didn’t talk that much. I didn’t need to. It was as if simply being in the room together was enough; I was being acknowledged and ‘heard,’ by my physical and spiritual presence. There was good, powerful energy in that room–very loving. Heartbreaking, but loving. We even laughed at times, believe it or not, aside from the tears.
It dawned on me, while writing this, that what I’ve been struggling with over these past years, is not only the tragic loss of my father, but the lack of a cohesive family left in which to find grounding. None of my remaining family has done work to delve into making sense of our father’s death. The phrase, “We are who we are,” gets tossed around and it makes me want to chew glass. It is often offered in tandem with “We can’t change who we are,” which is untrue. We absolutely can change. We can address our deeper shadows, and expose them to the light. We all have them. We simply need the courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable so that things can shift and we can grow. I hate to say it, but the righteous sentiment underlying “We can’t change who we are,” is part of the reason for the divisions in this world; people with heels dug in, not willing to risk taking on the opportunity to change, to hold space for the ‘other,’ and be curious, instead of judgmental. I have spoken this with my family members, urged them all to journey towards knowing their deeper selves, but my words have fallen on deaf ears. I did try, but I have come to understand that your family is not there to support you as much as its members are there to teach you. So, we learn, learn, learn. It’s a boon to be aware of it.
If you’re struggling with any kind of profound trauma, you need to be heard in order to heal; it’s necessary for someone else to hold space for you. If, in a conversation, you’re having to interrupt the other in order to express yourself, then it’s likely that that person is not an ideal support. It doesn’t mean that they are awful; far from it. To allow silence in a conversation is uncomfortable for some–can make them feel vulnerable. I’ve witnessed people talk on, and on about nothing, keeping the silence full, like it was a soothing, audible duvet. Most often, these people have undergone a challenge, and not yet committed to accessing their deeper selves in order to heal. Talking like this can be a defense mechanism, a way to steer the discussion to familiar, comfortable topics and that’s just fine. Oh, we are all broken in places, aren’t we? I don’t know anyone who isn’t. No matter where the person is in their life, or how keen they are on healing, everyone deserves to be heard.
For a few days in July of 2018, I camped at the Agawa Bay National Park on the eastern shore of Lake Superior. I was on my way back from delivering my younger son to his summer gig in the Rocky Mountains, and figured I’d spend a few days here. The weather was perfect, so one day, I decided to tackle the park’s 'Awausee Trail,' a 10 k loop that ran up to lookouts set high up in the landscape, offering stunning views of the lake. I set out on my own, sporting a small backpack with water, some snacks, and a compass inside of it, just in case. It wasn’t until I got well in to the hike that I realized just how alone I was. At the same time as this, I remembered how dangerous bears can be, especially if you step around a corner and surprise them, waking them out of their nap. I imagined the headline: “Idiot Woman Hikes Alone, Like a Real Moron, Is Eaten By Bear.” In that moment, I figured that I had better make some noise, so I began singing. To be clear, I am not a singer. It’s not that I can’t hold a tune, because I can do that, but I have no range. Despite this, I began sing-hollering, or loud-talking, making up lyrics as I went. I really, sincerely didn’t want to see a bear, or a moose, so did my best. I was embarrassed at first. What if other hikers heard me? Mine was the only vehicle at the trail head, so my chances of running into anyone were slim. After a time, my voice settled in and the effort became quite fun. I wish I had written down the lyrics I put together. They had a Noel Coward tone to them. Something like,
“Don’t put your knee out on the trail, Mrs. Robertson,
Don’t put your knee out on the trail.
The doctor’s gone to Lisbon,
And the donkey’s asleep.
The horses have no shoes on,
And the plane’s in a heap,
So, don’t put your knee out on the trail Mrs. Robertson
The gang’s not here.”
Or something like that. I amused myself, whatever the words, but that could have been from dehydration.  If there had been a bear in the area, I am certain that it would have heard me, and ran horrified deeper into the forest, thinking, “That’s an awful sound. I’m not eating that!”
Hear. Hear.