Listen Deliberately

Julia Harrison, Editorials Editor

I’ve skipped school (sorry, Ms. Grimm), as I always do for too many days in October, to spend a day wandering through the woods. The walk began with my changing Spotify playlists four different times from “Deep Focus” to “Autumn Acoustic” to “Afternoon Acoustic” to eventually “calmin trax.” And then as I sing quietly along to one of the 25 Cat Stevens songs on the playlist, I’ve lost myself in the woods behind Proffit Road.

I walk through the woods when I’m afraid of all the things that I write and don’t write about in these columns (still avoiding the 800-word cliche on “the suburban mousetrap” and “the tyranny of college!”).

I don’t know how to talk about things, really. I can write them down just how I mean them, but I don’t know how to say them aloud, how to talk about what I want or what I’m afraid of or what I think love is actually comprised of and how I feel it.

And you can chalk it all up to an “unwillingness to be vulnerable” which I think is much too dramatic of an explanation to be true, but I really think it comes down to my fear of making anybody listen if they don’t want to. I’m afraid of losing someone’s attention while I’m in the midst of telling them about the emotional trauma I suffered due to binge-watching Dawson’s Creek this past summer. I’m afraid of not being interesting enough, of saying the wrong things, of saying ugly things.

This is all in my head, of course, all a strange and sappy transcendentalist-inspired theory maybe: but the wilderness, it seems, is always listening intently, unconditionally and without judgement. This is what draws me to it, because listening this way is what I want to learn to do. I want to always be captivated by conversation, regardless of the topic, just because it is beautiful to see someone talking about anything at all if it means they are forming original thoughts and sentences and opinions.

To the woods, there is nothing about me that is not interesting, none of my thoughts or words disturbing. They can’t see how ugly I look with my hair in braided pigtails, they can’t raise their eyebrows when I make terribly inappropriate jokes. I don’t have to avoid the words “plethora” and “feta cheese” because I can’t pronounce them. I am not being asked to talk, to smile, to say or write beautiful things, to be witty or coy or creative. I am not asked to listen or respond. I am not asked to be anything at all. I am allowed to speak, to say whatever I would like, as much as I am allowed to be completely silent.

Though the forest is not a hand to hold, or a shoulder to cry on, or a Lorelai Gilmore, it does a better job of listening than any human is able, I think.

As inherently self-interested beings, we struggle to listen and to reach out. As inherently self-interested beings, selfless acts require effort. As self-interested beings, then, we have something to learn from the woods. If we teach ourselves to truly listen, as I think the woods are able to do, we can provide someone else with that experience of feeling listened to that we all long for ourselves.