I am often struck by the fact that so many people have a deep need for others to listen to them. Yesterday at church, for example, I spent a great deal of time talking to a gentleman after church who clearly needed someone to listen to him. He shared photographs of his family, talked about some of the scandalous details of the past that had soured him on certain authorities, and talked about his history of abuses and how, at least in some areas, he has mellowed out over the past few years. He talked about his own prayers about a foot problem he has been having, something I can identify with from my own feet problems , and also about the pernicious effect of slander that he had remembered from his youth, where he had falsely been accused of some sort of sexual shenanigans in his congregation. These were all matters that I could listen to with a great degree of empathy from my own personal experiences.
I am struck often by the fact that people often feel comfortable unburdening themselves with me. Sometimes this unburdening possibly comes with a sense of ulterior motives, as there are people who want the emotional intimacy that springs from being listened to by someone who is genuinely sympathetic and understanding to lead to physical intimacy. It so happens, unfortunately, that while I have a great capacity for emotional and intellectual intimacy that I am among the most awkward and reluctant people around when it comes to matters of physical intimacy, something that has brought no end of difficulty into my personal life, because I am burdened with many stories, much suffering, and a great deal of longing without a suitable outlet for many of them except for voluminous writing or other creative art. But still I listen to those who happen to come into my path, and often there is a great deal of importance that comes from listening to people, even if they may have a narrow set of interests and may continually want to talk about the same things over and over again, no matter how often we have heard them.
As an undergraduate student in civil engineering, one time I went on a tour of various sites of particular interest to engineers in Southern California. Among those trips was a visit to the ruins of the San Francisquito dam, whose ruin led to the fall of Mulholland and to the death of hundreds of people as the river behind the dam rushed into the Pacific early on a Sunday morning. The people who warned about the dangers of the particular site, with its evidence of previous subsidence and hence some sort of geological instability were ignored, because it was of vital importance that a dam be built to store water for the thirsty people of the burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles, which had stolen the water of the Owens River valley for its own use, not to be told where it should not store its ill-gotten gains. Yet the voices that shouted warning were ignored, much to the cost of others later on. In many ways, all of us has a deep river inside of us, and sometimes that river is dammed up because it is unsafe to let it flow, and sometimes still and placid waters on the surface hide deep and furious currents. Sometimes a river may seem rigidly fixed in a single channel and dig a canyon out of it, while other rivers may jump from channel to channel with alarming frequency and results, when people might prefer that they stick with one channel or a much more narrow territory. The terrain of our lives is curious and often worthy of deep reflection.
At times, listening to people can be a sort of last act of kindness for someone who is soon to die. Sometimes without our knowing we can listen to someone’s words and not realize that we will never hear their voice again. I wonder about the times I have listened to people without being aware of the limited time they had left, and the times I felt imposed upon because they wanted to talk for so long but held my impatience in check long enough for them to say their peace, while leaving me with a lasting memory of who they were . I think of my weekly conversations on the phone with my grandmother, which ended at her death, of the chats I had with my great-grandfather over root beer where he revealed stories of an immensely busy and worthwhile life, and I feel a sense of gratitude in being able to have listened to people speak their piece, and to have unburdened themselves of at least some of the weight on their heart before they no longer drew breath at all. Maybe someday someone will do that for me. For so much of my own writing is its own indirect communication, unburdening my own heart in the hope that some will listen and understand. It is little wonder that I would identify with those who unburden themselves with me, for our lives are all too brief a flicker before they vanish forever and our deeds and words, our fears and longings, our enmities and our intimacies are forgotten and we lie unknown and unmourned.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: