Listening

Posted: September 24, 2008 in prison, general, teaching

My sister dropped off the most recent edition of Harper’s Magazine so I could read a hilarious exchange between Giles Coren, restaurant critic for the London Times Magazine, and his subeditors over their removal of an indefinite article in one of his articles. For those of you who are word snobs or editing snobs or simply like to see the two go at it I highly suggest reading it. In the same issue, however, I also read exerpts from Joshua Casteel’s collection, Letters from Abu Ghraib, which is a gathering of emails he sent while he worked as an interrogator at the infamous prison. In an email dated July 24 he writes about learning that the “results” of one of his interogations has netted “valuable information”. He writes about his method for getting the “information” from the detainee:

“That was a big boost of confidence [learning he had gotten valuable information], since the best thing I did was simply to respect him and talk to him as if I had not idea of his past crimes — which were unbelieavable — and, apparently, valuable information was gleaned. Listening goes so much further than speaking. Listening to the cues of a person who does not want to come right out and say something is not only what interrogation is about, it’s what being a decent human being is about. Listening to them tell their own stories is what I value, and now so do the ‘higher-ups.” I think this is God’s answer to prayer, a little bit of sense in this madness.” (Harper’s, October 2008, 23)

Now, I certainly don’t claim that my work with the men at Monroe is the same as Casteel’s work with the men at Abu Ghraib. It is not my “job” to get the men at Monroe to tell me their story so I can obtain information that may or may not save thousands of lives elsewhere in the world. Yet, what Casteel writes about the power of listening to story still applies. As a volunteer it is sometimes easy to walk into some place like Monroe and assume you are going to have a lot to teach the people there, that they will want to listen to you. What Casteel reminds me is that sometimes, a truly gifted teacher, knows when to stay silent and let the student tell you what he knows. Indeed, my experiences thus far at Monroe, have taught me that I know far less than I ever thought I did.

And to listen is “what being a decent human being is about”. To be able to remain silent about yourself, thus giving space, unfilled space, to another to share his story, is perhaps a perfect definition of decency. Not to mention compassion and empathy.

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