This week brings the second in a new guest post series called “Listen, Learn and Listen Some More.” You’ll still hear from me, of course, but every Tuesday you’ll be invited into story from some writers who have something to teach the rest of us. As such, I’m so excited for you to get to know Nicole Walters today; her short story, “Listening Without an End in Mind” is sure to make you think about when you’ve listened just to listen …and not to change situations or minds. Proceeds from today’s article will go toward Preemptive Love.
“Why are you here?” she asked suspiciously when we sat down knee to knee on the dirt floor of her shelter. She had seen other foreigners before. They brought food and water, set up medical camps. Were we here to do the same? “We just want to hear your story,” one of the women in our circle said. The Rohingya woman tugged the violet scarf behind her ears as she smiled widely and let out a contented sigh.
When I was younger I never imagined I would be sitting in a circle like that one. Everything in me loved to color inside the lines. A risk-averse rule follower asks where the boundaries are and then stays a few feet inside of them.
My faith stayed inside the lines for years, too. I clung to right answers and thought I knew all the rules to follow to please God and to make a difference in the world.
And then, I went out and met people who looked, lived, and believed nothing like me. I started listening and realizing how little I knew at all.
Thankfully, I met people who valued people’s stories over quick solutions. When one organization I worked with wanted to combat slavery in India they asked the people in bondage how they could help and listened when they responded: “Educated our children. Don’t let this cycle continue with the next generation.” So, they started schools and empowered national teachers to run them.
“It is easy to know what is good for someone else,” says nun and human rights advocate, Joan Chissiter, “It is difficult to listen and let them define it themselves.” I don’t always make the effort to listen. But when I do, I realize the gravity of carrying someone else’s story…and the privilege.
Back in that camp, we leaned in closer around the quiet woman, eager to hear her story. When the refugee crisis began a year before, funds flooded in. People will give money to help with an urgent need. But like putting a bandaid on a surgical wound, it doesn’t sustain work in the long-term. When the news stops, the money stops. And the people continue to suffer in quiet.
My family had moved to Bangladesh to support local work in education and economic development. The little river delta country with big needs of its own had become home to a million people fleeing violence in Myanmar. We wanted to find ways we could offer something more than the packs of food, clothing, and hygiene items we were currently supplying.
Her words flowed slowly like she was watching the memories as they unfolded in her mind.
She spoke of the army entering their village and shooting people indiscriminately. She told us how she watched family members die in front of her before she decided to flee.
I shifted as sweat trickled like a river down my back. The monsoon rains hadn’t arrived yet and to say it was uncomfortable in the room made of bamboo poles and tarps was an understatement. Yet she scooted closer to me when she told us about their perilous trip across the river and reached for my hand when she spoke of the boatmen that would kill them if they couldn’t pay.
Sometimes I pull up the recording I took of that conversation and listen to her tell it again. I don’t want to forget as time makes the memory of that day fade. I wonder where her family is now. Has their life changed at all? Maybe hearing and sharing her story with donors raised some money. Maybe we did some good. I do know that day changed me.
So often in our desire to help, we run in with solutions without listening. We insert ourselves into a story that isn’t ours. We try to fix without seeking to understand.
I can do this in my work or just as easily with my children or friends.
Leading with this kind of selfish stance is living in a black and white world, devoid of the color that living as a learner brings. So I take a deep breath and remind myself if I ever want to love well I must always begin by emptying myself. Then I watch the world explode in all its radiant hues.
Nicole T. Walters lives somewhere in the tension between wanderlust and rootedness. She makes her home in Georgia with her husband and two children but has lived and left parts of her heart in the Middle East and South Asia. She writes about the intersection of faith and action at nicoletwalters.com.