Let Go To Listen
Photo Credit: Lt Leslie R Sears, Jr, U S Army
I recently read a book my Mom gave me called Just Listen – Discover The Secret To Getting To Absolutely Anyone” by Mark Goulston. It makes you think. “Be more interested than interesting.” “The power of hmm.” “Rewire yourself to listen.”
No one listens any more. At my daughter Katie’s white coat ceremony when matriculating to her Physician’s Assistant program, a very experienced M.D. told the students that he had a patient who had just run a marathon with a highly competitive brother. The patient was complaining of shin-splints, a sore foot, dehydration and overall malaise. The doctor started to prescribe medicines and treatments to ease these symptoms when the patient said, “No Doc, you don’t understand. I want you to write me a note that says I am never allowed to run another marathon so I can show it to my brother!” The whole theme of the white coat ceremony was that these students should learn how to listen to their patients.
Sitting at a table in a restaurant I noticed a family of four across the way and no one was speaking, each person was looking down at his own cell-phone. What has happened to us? We seem to have become totally disconnected. I am sorry I don’t have a solution but I can ruminate about listening. Television must have been the start of it all. When a family had to sit around a radio and listen to find out what’s going on they were practicing a skill that had been passed down through generations. Someone tells a story and someone else listens. The stories need to paint a picture just like a book does. Today our stories cannot last any longer than three minutes, the length of a typical pop song, or the audience is lost. In Germany we went without TV for three years. Well there was the Armed Forces Network channel but the signal was weak in our little burg. There were no satellites or cable then. My favorite treat was listening to Armed Forces Radio- “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
In order to listen properly, that M.D. said first you must sit down and get on the same level with your patient and even better if you hold the other person’s hand. While one wizard of a doctor was holding my hand and talking with me about my tonsils he managed to measure my pulse, feel for stress and look at my fingernails to determine blood flow. He didn’t have to say a word and he had learned volumes about me just holding my hand. These days doctors hardly even touch you? In a recent TED talk describing how to add 10 years to your life, the speaker, Jane McGonagal, said you can add minutes to every day of your life by developing four post traumatic growth strengths and lead a life with fewer regrets – physical resilience (don’t sit still, get up and move); mental resilience (count backward from 100 by 7s); emotional resilience (look out the window); and finally social resilience (shake someone’s hand for six seconds - awkward, right?) - but, the handshake raises the level of oxytocin in your blood.
I believe learning how to listen will give you social resilience and result in a longer life. You may be familiar with movies that show soldiers communicating with walkie-talkies. Or maybe you have used a CB-radio at some time. Only one person can talk at a time. What a blessing. The button on the microphone says PTT. Push-To-Talk. When I started as a new Lieutenant my radio operator had to remind me- “Sir- you need to Let Go To Listen!” It sounds simple and makes sense but is not always intuitive. Besides that, as long as you have your radio “keyed” you are transmitting a signal, and even if you are not saying anything, the enemy is triangulating your position so he can drop a mortar round on you. It got to the point that for our training to go to Vietnam- (I never went, the war was over just months after I became a Lieutenant) they told us that if you acknowledge a transmission just key your mike twice, the receiver hears “click, click” and knows you got the message without you saying a word and further disclosing your location.
Dad coordinating anti-aircraft artillery fire in Germany
I loved to listen to my Mom, Dad, grandmothers and cousins tell stories. There were stories about the great New England hurricane of 1938 when Mom says that Grandma and Grandpa had to take an inside door and nail it over a window that had been blown out in their home near Worcester. There were stories about fishing and sailing and traveling the world including a trip through the Panama Canal in 1929. Grandma Sanders told about the two oldest of eight kids milking cows before they went to school in the morning, and Mom said lunch was often a fried egg sandwich brought in a paper bag. Grandma told about the boys having to dig a huge hole in the backyard for the outhouse. Mom told about the first indoor plumbing! Mom says somehow, Grandma was able to come up with a completely new Easter outfit for all eight kids every year and that Tuesday was hot dog night when everyone could bring a friend to dinner! Mom says the only heat in their house was the wood stove in the kitchen. That’s where you heated water for the galvanized tub, and that there was a hole in the ceiling above the stove to allow heat to migrate up to the bedrooms. It might have been nice to have an old feather bed that would hold eight kids and four hound dogs and a piggy they stole from the shed?
Dad tells about crawling through cranberry bogs on hands and knees while in college picking berries in East Dennis. Did you know there are 333 berries in a pound and 3,333 berries in a gallon of juice? He was picking for Lou Crowell in East Dennis. Lou’s sister Geta, who lived across the street from Gramma Sears told me about her younger days as a school teacher when a teacher was not allowed to marry. Both Geta and my cousin Ruth Sears were lifetime schoolteachers who went to the Hyannis Normal School. You know that teachers have great stories. Geta told of spending her later years taking care of parents Lou Sr. and Susan (Hall) and her sister, Lydia, who was also a schoolteacher. They lived in Moose House on Main Street in East Dennis with a prominent moose head brought back from Canada by the elder Lou Crowell. Mooses of all shapes and sizes were situated everywhere in that house. It was a treat for us kids to go over and visit and hear the old stories again. Dad told how Mom’s brother, Uncle Bobby, once shot an arrow across Main St and into the dining room at the Old Stagecoach Inn and what it took to calm the patrons and fix that window. Did I mention, these old stories were told again and again. That repetition is important. My daughter Valorie tells me of the patients she chats up while working as a dental hygienist. Their stories are hilarious. She found out that once you numb up a patient someone has to stay with them. One fellow got up from the chair mid-appointment after receiving the anesthetic and she said, “Where are you going?” He said, “It doesn’t hurt any more thanks, I am leaving.”
How do I know these stories? Well my Mom and sisters help me. For the past fifteen years we have gotten together every Friday morning for an hour and listened. We live in Oklahoma and Florida and New Hampshire but that does not stop us. You can do it too. We started with AOL Instant Messenger – yes it’s true, sometimes we do get more than one conversation going but it keeps us in touch. Then with the advent of Facebook Messenger we switched over to that app and conducting our “Wochechat” (that’s the term we coined for our weekly chat- German for weekly chat) was even easier.
You need to have regular interaction with someone to keep lines of communication open. In the Army it was called joining the net. A radio becomes part of the network. We need to make “joining the net” one of our priorities. An amateur radio net is an “on-the-air” gathering of amateur radio operators. We have had nets long before the internet was conceived. I’ll bet some readers have even been part of “party-line” telephone groups and have had conversations with multiple neighbors at once. Mom says kids were not allowed to use the phone in her house. I have found it takes nearly an hour talking with someone to get past the small-talk and to the things that matter. Mom now participates every month with a group called- Conversations That Matter. Would that we could all be a part of that group.
One reason I write these stories is in hopes that my kids will know that the world really was in technicolor back in the “old days,” despite what we see in the movies. Life was pretty exciting back then and we have to convey that somehow. Our stories are important and I hope you will write yours down. Let me know if I can help you in any way. Did you notice it only took you three minutes to read this story? As you can tell, it was this story that “gave” me the title for the book and the inspiration to compile all these ruminations in one place.