David Carlson: Listen up


Before I spoke at a church last weekend, an elderly man on a walker approached me for a short conversation. Learning that I would be talking about interviews that I had conducted for a book, this 96-year-old shared some of his stories — beginning with his experiences in the Great Depression.

It was a brief encounter, but, oddly, it reminded me of an article that I’d read recently about the emotional damage experienced by young people who spend large portions of their days staring at the screens on their phones and other devices. Mental health experts are now warning that such behaviors have become an addiction for many people, and not just youth.

I saw evidence of this first-hand in my later years of teaching. Something I had always enjoyed was walking to my classroom through a tunnel of students talking and laughing with each other in the hallways. I counted on the students bringing that chatter and energy into the classroom.

But in the last decade of my teaching, I noticed an abrupt shift. Students were still standing in the hallways waiting for their classes to begin, but there were few conversations. Instead of talking with one another, students were staring at their phones as if the secret of life would appear any moment.

In truth, one of the secrets of life was nearby, not on their phones but in the people standing next to them. That was what I’d learned in conducting interviews for two books. Everyone we pass in a hallway, on a sidewalk or in a store is living out a story that will never be repeated in the entire life of the universe. Those stories are filled with joys, sorrows, lessons learned, fears, hopes and life-changing experiences. But who is listening to these stories?

In 2000, Robert Putnam wrote an intriguing book entitled “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” The book isn’t about bowling, but about the increasing experience of “aloneness” of people in America. He documented the decline of organizations and community groups that had brought people together in the past. If TV began the cocooning of Americans in their homes, smartphones and other electronic devices have increased our isolation. The people we pass every day remain strangers, and we remain strangers not just to them but to ourselves.

Conducting interviews has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Whenever I finish an interview, I feel that the interviewee has given me a gift. I feel more alive, but even more than that, I feel that the experience has brought me into the presence of something sacred.

Conducting interviews, however, is just a formal way of listening to the stories of others, something we all can do each day. The more we listen to others, the more likely we are to hear something that will enrich our own lives, even change us forever.

But none of that will happen until we put down our phones.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].