My friend Duane blogged today about conversations. Instead of summarizing his argument, I’ll merely link to it. Read it before reading on, please.
No, really. READ IT.
OK, good. Let’s continue.
I recall, late last fall, visiting an elderly gentleman in the hospital. I was making my normal pastoral-care rounds, and stopped by his room to provide him with Communion and perhaps some spiritual counseling. The gentleman’s condition wasn’t life-threatening, and he was looking forward to his discharge a day or two hence.
Normally, these visits are routine affairs; you stop in for a moment, and then you go. Every now and then, a visit extends for upwards of an hour — usually because the patient has needs that require addressing.
This fellow took about 45 minutes of my time. I think, fundamentally, he was just lonely. As I recall, he was well into his 80s, and his remaining family was out of the state. He didn’t have many people to talk to, so whenever someone would listen, he’d tell his story.
And tell stories, he did. Fascinating ones. He was a veteran of WW2, Korea, and Vietnam — first in the Army Air Corps/USAF, and then in the U.S. Navy, mostly as a pilot. He grew up in Grand Rapids and came of age during the Great Depression; he told us how his family would grow cucumbers, pickle them, and sell the pickles for pennies a jar to immigrant families along the city’s southern industrial belt. The amusing anecdotes of living in an apartment building with several other families — the building had a single, shared washroom — were priceless. He told me about his mother driving the family’s first car into the living room because she forgot how to work the clutch, and how difficult it was in a social sense to adjust to life with indoor plumbing, electricity, telephones, and even television.
Some of the stories were sad. His father, who had been severely wounded in combat during the Great War, lost a son; the boy saw his father take pills (for his wounds) and decided to do what daddy did. And my gentle storyteller’s own son had a birth defect that required serious and constant attention before the boy eventually died.
Most interesting from his stories was the perspective that came through. A cynic might call it fatalism, but I think it is more a generational understanding — perhaps lost in our own day — that people are fundamentally responsible for themselves. Not a lot of self-pity, and a warm embrace of the fond times without going insane about the bad, but certainly a strong sense of personal responsibility.
As I read Duane’s post, it occurred to me that one of the joys of listening to my old patient was that I didn’t need to reply. I didn’t have to answer or rebut or even trade a story of my own. I could focus solely on listening, and I enjoyed that.
Duane is right that we (myself included) tend to listen only insofar as to cue up the next thing to spew from betwixt our lips. He’s also right that this presents a barrier to meaningful two-way conversation.
But I wonder: Is part of the problem that we no longer feel a need to listen without speaking? Is storytelling — in the wizened chief enthralling the tribe by the campfire vein — vanishing from our cultural landscape?
Perhaps we’d all do a bit better if, every now and then, we sat down with our elders and focused only on their stories. Even if it’s at McDonalds.
My friend at McDonalds had an interesting way of talking about how people in older days would sit around and communicate. He called it sitting around and cracking nuts (yes, there are all sorts of sophomoric jokes that can be made of that phrasing). What I found interesting about it was that he talked about it as he and his brothers would be rowdy in the house, and then their mother would send them out to the house out back where they’d sit around and crack nuts. He said that what he found fascinating (only now) was that while they were in the house, they’d fight like normal kids, but when cracking nuts, they were a lot more friendly and social. He claimed to think there was something ringing through history that focused on that, which is why he believed early Americans may have been more social and friendly in their interactions around campfires back then. It was an interesting thought.
“Is storytelling — in the wizened chief enthralling the tribe by the campfire vein — vanishing from our cultural landscape?”
I sure hope so. Old people, more often than not, tell long boring stories that really suck. There. I said it.
Now I will tell you a story. A friend of mine had taken his little three year old to a laundromat so they could do laundry. Mom’s a doctor and was doing the residency thing. To entertain himself while his father folded clothes, the little guy started dancing and humming. Three year olds do that. I wish more grown ups would. The world would be a better place. Anyway, an old man in the laundromat commented to my friend (verbatim here):
“In my day, we used to call kids like that nancies.”
This old person just told a complete stranger that his three year old son was probably gay. My friend, being both a history major and a patient man, replied,
“Well, in your day, they used to make black people sit in the back of the bus, so I really don’t care.”
Taken aback, the old man hobbled away and got HIS 30-year old redneck son to come back and try to intimidate my friend (who at 6’2″ and 220 pounds is not easily intimidated). Just because someone is old does not mean they should be listened to or elected president. There’s a reason we no longer live in tribes in the forest and sit around listening to old wizened chiefs make shit up. It’s because at various stages throughout history, we stopped listening to those old people and started living our own lives.
Old people have nothing of value to teach us with their stories. I know that flies in the face of everything we got taught as kids (by who? Old People), but it’s true.