On Being Heard

I jammed my fingers in a cafe door in town the other day. Not in the way that you close the door on them and you say “ouch” and give them a bit of a shake until the blood flows back into them, I mean I grabbed hold of a door jamb for support for ten seconds, just as the big glass monstrosity of a door swung shut again. I’d grabbed the hinge side. The door wanted to be where my fingers were, and my fingers weren’t much of a match for stopping them.

(image from http://www.fingersafe.com.au. This is not me, obviously!)

The point is, it hurt. A lot. I managed to put down the thing coffee I was holding and reach across myself to push the door open again enough to extricate my fingers. I said “ouch”, or some variation thereof.

Here’s the other point: nobody, not one person in that coffee shop, nor anyone walking outside, noticed. This is understandable; my body was shielding the view from the people behind me, the person for whom the door had opened had already walked away, I was on my own, waiting for someone. People in coffee shops make remarks like “ouch” all the time, if they spill a dash of coffee on themselves, if they bang their toe, if they bite an ulcer on the side of their mouths. In hindsight I wouldn’t expect anybody to jump up and demand to know whether I was okay. I moved back to my chair, careful not to grab the door jamb this time, and sat down.

I didn’t take a photo, although I probably should have, because there were craters in three of my fingers a full half-centimetre deep, and although the skin hadn’t been broken it had been pushed down to the level of the bone. I held them up to the level of my face, partly to see them, half-wanting to catch the eye of someone, to debrief, to say “look at my fingers!” but nobody looked. I wanted to say “OUCH” again, loudly, but it was after the fact, and it wasn’t like there was anybody there who cared enough for me to say it to. I sat in my seat and watched the people and held my poor fingers against my hot coffee to soothe them, and waited.

By the time my friend came I had tears streaming down my face. I held up my hand and said, probably sounding as pathetic as I looked, “I jammed my fingers!” She was, of course, brilliant. She was sympathetic in the way that I needed, she got me some ice and some tissues to wipe my face, and she sat with me and asked “what happened?!” It helped. Simply by her presence and her willingness to listen she helped enormously. I hadn’t realised how much tension I’d been holding in my body since the incident until I felt it dissipate. The fact that someone acknowledged my experience helped me to move on.

(My fingers are fine, by the way. They are a little sore if I touch the place where they were jammed, but otherwise no injury at all. I’m very glad it wasn’t a child or an elderly person that it happened to though).

My fingers aren’t that much of a big deal, but it made me think a lot about the difference it made for me to be heard. It made me think about the stories of older people who lived through trauma (especially the sexual abuse stories) as young people, and told no-one, or who weren’t believed. It made me think of returned soldiers, especially those struggling to find their place in life again, and the stories they can’t talk about and how it affects them. It made me think about the times in my own life when I’ve shared a story, or not been able to share a story, or a thought, or a feeling, or a niggling doubt.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fd/Meeting_On_The_Wall%2C_Essaouira_%285258780850%29.jpg/1024px-Meeting_On_The_Wall%2C_Essaouira_%285258780850%29.jpg(Meeting on the Wall, from Wikimedia commons)

We were made to listen, and to be listened to. This is the basis of friendship, of community, of family, I think. We were made to speak, and designed to be heard.

Who are you listening to today? What is it that you need to tell?


11 thoughts on “On Being Heard

  1. Ouch. I really, really sympathize. I’ve done some fairly horrible things to fingers.

    On being heard, there is a caveat, at least where PTSD is concerned. No secret that I have it, and no secret that it’s quite severe.

    But aside from using some watered-down and disguised examples from my past – I find that I don’t want to be heard, for a couple of reasons.

    First, there’s no appropriate audience. The nature of the work I did makes it very hard to find anyone who would truly understand. There were things there, that were so far beyond the civilized pale that there’s no common vocabulary with which to describe them – save one that is either sensationalistic, or self-aggrandizing (in a positive or negative sense).

    Second, there is nowhere to go with these memories, no possibility of catharsis. It was a job that started on a certain date, ended on a certain date, and that is about all I will ever know of its effectiveness. There are no monuments or movies, no VFW dining-in evenings, no visits from legislators.

    I suppose that in the end I’m afraid to talk about it, because I may see that which I am afraid is true – that it was all a waste, and that on being told it’s time to rejoin society…I won’t be able to. I’m afraid that by giving up the mythic memories that I hold close I’ll lose a part of myself.

    • I have immense sympathy for you, Andrew, and all who are traumatised. ‘Reality’ has the potential to break us. Most of us can’t handle the truth of the worst things that happen in this world – I know I can’t. The people I have met who have been through trauma and survived, particularly refugees of conflict, are amazing. But they didn’t want to talk about the terrible things either. They just wanted to keep their mind in the present.

      • Andrew…I have no words. And that may make it even harder, or prove a point, or something like that.
        I’m glad there’s Heaven.

        Mary, well said. I’ve heard people who work with refugees say not to ask them about where they come from. I imagine the worst, and even then I’m pretty sure I can barely scratch the surface.

    • Just wanted to say this was an interesting post and I came here via Twitter. My story very briefly is that I relate to both of you. I’m making the effort now to integrate and finding my only allies are at the top. I mean serious academics and industry types. Average people are just gormless. It’s a sad fact and one that those guys at the top know all too well. I wish it wasn’t true.
      Also briefly: my wife and I nearly drowned in the Yarra in front of many people in Warrandyte years ago. We dragged ourselves torn and bleeding through poison ivy on the wrong side of the bank and back to our car in the busy restaurant area.
      I can still see the faces of people staring blankly, indifferent as they entered the restaurant.
      I’m also a survivor of extensive child abuse, as is my wife, and everyone knew what was going on. I grew up in a small church community and everyone knew. No-one did anything.
      The pastor preached sermons about the sanctity of the family unit and the principle of non-interference. Irony.

      • Ash that’s awful, both the near-drowning and the abuse, especially awful about the pastor’s denial…that kind of thing makes my blood boil.
        I understand what you say about finding your only allies are at the top, there are times I thought that way myself. I was pleasantly surprised, after a while, to learn it wasn’t necessarily true. There are many “average” people out there (desk clerks, stay-at-home-mums, quiet people on buses going about their quiet lives) who carry within them enormous resources, intellect and potential. Often they’re not so good at getting their names/thoughts/voices out there into the public arena, but they’re still extraordinary people with a lot to offer.
        And yes, sometimes you meet people whose innate potential, insight and intellect are well, WELL hidden under more than a few rolls of “average”. I get that too, although I find it’s always best not to judge πŸ™‚

  2. This is so true. I find that without speaking my fears, my failures or hurts they grow inside of me but when I speak them to someone who loves me they seem so much smaller. Also I jammed my toe so bad the other day it turned black I made my husband look at it and I didn’t say “ouch” I said something else…

    • It’s funny how that happens, the talking it out thing, isn’t it? I’m constantly amazed that my brain can’t sort things out as well as using my mouth can.
      OUUUUUCCCHHH about the toe! Oh my. Hope it’s recovering okay. Hurts just to think about it!!

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