On Listening, Importantly

Today, I was waiting at the pharmacy for a prescription to be filled. As I sat, I listened to the conversation between a woman and an elderly man. They’d obviously just met and were engaged in the same sort of life exchange – a conversation about everything and nothing, all at once. I smiled to myself as I listened to them talk about animals, overseas travel, even politics.

One rainy night this week, a man came into Dairy Queen for a sundae. He ended up standing at the counter for nearly fifteen minutes, sharing pictures of his mother and grandmother. He told me all about his history, his military service, his family, their small business, his father.

As I found my patience slipping away, I thought of how important a listening ear can be. It wasn’t by any means a sudden realization, but it was a firm reminder of the importance of human interaction, particularly as a significant amount of our population grows older.

I am one of those people who thrives on human interaction. My energy stems from the satisfaction I feel as I communicate and my most basic motivation is understanding and acceptance, meaning derived from experiences both shared and personally discovered.

We don’t talk about growing older much in our society. I believe that we’d prefer to imagine ourselves in a state of eternal youth, hiding crows’ feet and wrinkles with expensive creams and surgeries, replacing degrading joints with robotic ones, striving to stay active and youthful with pills and endless supplements. But it’s a reality that we’ll most likely face one day. Age will happen to us, or to someone we know. The body can’t sustain its seemingly perpetual motion and youth forever, and will eventually begin to decline, the slow march toward obsolescence we swore would never happen to us.

We push our elderly away, ensconcing them in homes and communities created specially for them, out of sight, out of mind. We disregard their opinions, mocking their experience. “In my day…” we’ll chortle and scoff. And yet, they are the very people we should be turning to. Their life experience is a compounded version of our own, far more complex and inherently stronger. Their wisdom has been carefully cultivated; their knowledge of the things we have yet to face is an oft-untapped resource.

I always listen when my grandfather talks about politics. I know that he’s got something valuable to say. I myself fail – I am not nearly the doting grandchild I wish I were. I do not carve out enough time to go and sit with them. I do not make enough time to listen.

I know that I don’t do enough. I need to be better at doing more. More listening, more connecting, more smiling, all of it. With all people. Loneliness is scary. And no one should have to be alone.

I’m rambling.

What I’m trying to share is the importance of interaction. The connections we form with our fellow humans don’t have to be deep friendships (but that never hurts), but individually, we have the power to make the world a more positive place for every single person we encounter. (I have to remind myself of this when I’m in Chicago-road-rage mode…) Your smile could be the smile that makes someone’s day. Your anecdote may fall flat (mine do….all the time), or it may be the thing that someone remembers for a lifetime.

Remind yourself that when you’re stuck in a waiting room and someone wants to show you pictures of their grandkids.

(Even though this post is centered around the very elderly, please feel free to use this unsolicited advice for when people want to show your 800 slides of their vacation to Canada – see that whale? or that whale? or that rock? or that bird? or that great cloud? Oh look, there’s a picture of the shrimp cocktail at the one restaurant in that one town you’re never going to go to – and remember, if you haven’t already, you’re going to be that guy someday, too.)

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