On the heels of the second annual high school summit for Facing History’s LA Partnership Schools Network, “Every Voice Matters,” I have been thinking a lot about the power of listening and truly understanding someone else's story. Never was the transformative power of listening more palpable than after my experience speaking with a Vietnam Veteran a few weeks ago.
I found myself on the campus of the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration (VA) center for a 5K/10K run for a non Veteran-related cancer charity. At the end of the race an older man in a wheel chair, who clearly had not been involved in the event, came up to me to ask me for a bottle of water. Noticing that he was struggling to maneuver the chair around the bumpy grass quad and looked significantly dehydrated, I quickly obliged. He was wearing a Veterans baseball cap, so I asked and he confirmed that he was a Vietnam Vet. It was clear that he was looking to engage further in a conversation, so a friend and I stood and listened to him speak about his experiences as a Vet for ten minutes. His speech was slurred and he struggled to get his point across, but at the end of the long ten minutes, he said “thank you for listening.”
I walked away feeling sad and unsettled about his struggles as a Veteran and his confusion as to why more people weren’t more appreciative of his service then and now. He explained that he would do anything to protect another American and he would never ask for anything in return. War is complicated and contentious and the aftermath is often messy and politicized; there is no getting around these facts. To illustrate this fact, this week I listened to another, all too common, story on NPR about a 31 year-old Iraq Vet, father of three, who struggled with PTSD. He did not feel comfortable coming forward for help and tragically took his own life. Somewhat understandably, the radio story was more focused on the funding, or lack thereof, of mental healthcare for Vets, than it was on his desperate attempt to be heard and understood.
Thank you for listening…”
That is all the man at the VA center wanted in that moment: someone to talk with and someone to listen. It may seem like an over simplification of the issues, but my experience with this man reminded me of how important it is to walk in someone else's shoes; to listen in order to truly understand an experience different from my own and become more empathetic to those who have given so much. The simple act of listening to his story seemed to give him satisfaction and validation, and that was the least that I could do. There are many ways to honor those who have served our country, but on Veterans Day and going forward, I will try to remember that listening truly is “an act of love.”
- LISTEN to World War II Veteran, Leon Bass talk about his discovery of others' stories when he helped liberate Buchenwald concentration camp by clicking here.
- EXPLORE the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the video, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" by clicking here.
- WATCH the animated StoryCorps film Jenny referenced, "Listening Is An Act Of Love," when it premiers on PBS November 28th. Find out more by clicking here.
- PRACTICE listening skills with the strategy "Listen to Learn, Learn to Listen" by clicking here.
Jennifer Lenardson works in development in the Los Angeles office of Facing History and Ourselves.