Friday, September 24, 2004

The poor talk too much

I've noticed something about people who live in poverty: they talk too much. Whenever I talk to people in a bad way, they go on and on and on about their situation. You listen and nod and say "uh-huh," and wait for it to end, checking your internal watch and trying to decide if you have time for this, and it just keeps going and going. It can be really annoying, actually.

At first I took this as a danger signal, a sign that someone was trying to hustle me out of something by spinning out a good story. But I realized after awhile that this wasn't really the point (though some of the poor are by necessity good hustlers). I think that people whose lives are spinning out of control feel a deep need to tell their story. Putting the events of their lives in the form of a narrative is a way of trying to regain some measure of control over their destiny. Telling their life in the form of a story gives the sense that there is meaning and purpose and direction, and not just random tragedy after random tragedy.

It is sometimes said that the poor have no voice, but maybe this isn't accurate. They have plenty of voice, but their words are like the proverbial tree falling in the forest when no one is there to hear it. The wealthy and powerful don't need to talk much, because their voices have power, because people listen to their words, because their fiat ("let it be") becomes reality. They can afford an economy of words.

The poor are shockingly liberal with their words, spending them in fat bundles like devaluated currency. Listening to them is a way of giving them a power that they lack in almost every other aspect of their life. Who can measure the despair of the person who has no one to listen? What terrible acts might have been averted simply because someone was able to tell their story, and thus regain a sense of mastery over their own destiny, a sense of human dignity?

Peacemaking as listening: this is a theme on which we need to reflect. Telling one's story and having someone to listen and really hear may be an antidote to despair. How do we engage the power of listening?


Miss Eagle said...

This, it seems to me, is quite original commentary. I haven't come across this before. I am interested in narrative in all its forms and find it's interesting in this context as well. Gives me much to think upon - Thank you

olympiada said...

i agree with you. i recently annoyed some one dear to me with my need to tell my story as i was moving through separation and divorce. now i see why i did that. i only hope that person one day comes to your blog and reads these words and understands. despair is a horrible temptation, and thank you for giving words to what i am going through.

Stacy said...

1. Have you ever heard of Narrative Therapy? Just curious because you're really dancing around one of its premises: People don't live out the facts of their lives they live out the narratives of their lives and therapist can help them re-narrate their stories.

2. Sometimes people rush into the narrative of their lives because of a social mind-blindness (e.g. the inability to read other people often caused from little to no self-awareness. It can have other causes, too). This often comes about from a break down in community and the lack of relational "mirrors" or the presence of highly distorted "relational mirrors."

3. The fiat of the "rich" is something that can be taught. "Let your yes be yes and your no be no."

4. I'd go a step farther than simply "peacemaking as listening." I'd say peacemaking as reflecing: this is a theme on which we need to reflect. I think to stop short of this results in a grotesque co-dependency.