When we listen, we are holding a space for others to tell something about themselves.

Listening: it is attention. Sensing. Being with. Being beside. Letting your own story fall away so that another can enter. It is the recognition that someone is saying something important to them, even if you don’t yet know how or why it is important. Listening encompasses all the acts of seeing, hearing, and knowing that allow us to be in relationship with the world.

Sometimes, listening hurts.

I’ve grown weary of the phrase, in its various permutations, “in these difficult times.”

“In these unprecedented times…”

“In these challenging times…”

“In these unusual times…”

Why do we use the excuse of a pandemic in order to act humanely? Were we not listening before? Were we suspending or withholding the best of ourselves, only because we weren’t living in so-called unusual times?

As we are living with the pandemic of the coronavirus, many of us are cognizant that we are experiencing something big. Transformative. Life-changing. Life-ending?

Maybe we are listening in ways which we haven’t before. We are listening to the virus. We are listening to the news. We are listening to our leaders, whether or not they bring us comfort. We are listening to the stories from the front lines, as they implore us to stay at home while they are witnessing the helplessness and grief of dying alone. We are listening to people who are mourning— the loss of beloveds, the loss of leisure, the loss of certainty, the loss of clarity. We are listening to our families and our friends. They are often afraid, worried, stir-crazy, cooped-up, and unsettled about a future that offers no promises nor relief.

Was it different before? For some of us, yes. For some of us, we didn’t confront our mortality on a regular basis. We weren’t afraid of being outside, being in public. We didn’t expect that something like this would happen to us. Things like this don’t happen to well-behaved people. Lines at the grocery store. Limits on our mobility. Being confined at home. The fear of not knowing. The damning decision of “masked if you do, masked if you don’t.” The double-bind of being both invisible and a potential enemy in plain sight. We see you, but we don’t want to really see you. Reveal yourself! Head coverings not allowed! But not too much. You scare me. We didn’t torture ourselves with the fear of being clean enough. Some of us never concerned ourselves with what it meant to be perilous strangers to one another. It never occurred to us that we might be perilous. Nor strangers.

“In these difficult, unprecedented, challenging, and unusual times,” we are getting a sense of what it means to live and listen on the edges. We are all on edge.

There is beauty in this collective experience. I don’t want to romanticize it. The reality of what we are living through, together, is horrifying. It’s beautiful, though, only because we have the unique opportunity to refer to a common “we.” Despite our echo chambers, despite our enclosed pods of knowing, despite our choices about to whom we defer for wisdom and guidance, we are living through an experience we all recognize.

I know we don’t all recognize it in the same way. I’m not that romantic. Just like that, I contradict myself mid-sentence. That’s the way it goes these days.

We are experiencing a crisis of health, of public policy, of governance, of taking care of each other, of trust.

We are also experiencing a crisis of listening. To whom are we listening? How are we listening? Are we listening at all?

“I’m scared!”

“Scared of what? It’s just the flu. 2 million people out of a world population of 7 billion?”

“Yes, but 2 million people is a lot of people. Even just one death, especially if it’s someone I care about and love, is one that I can’t bear.”

“Sometimes, we need to make sacrifices for the greater good. Think of all the jobs lost. Think of the destruction of the economy.

“I know. I’ve lost my business/employment/way of life. I have experienced the same losses as you have. I’m scared of being sick. I’m scared of losing my loved ones. I’m scared of what the future holds.

“I have a right to be outside. In public. I have a right to be free.”

What does that mean right now? What did it ever mean? To have the right to be outside, in public? Free?

For black, brown, and Native people, being outside and in public often means being regarded with suspicion. It means being ignored and marginalized in regard to public benefits and goods while also being subject to undue surveillance and monitoring. If we are being watched vigilantly for our perceived misdeeds and crimes, why aren’t we also being surveilled for our suffering and disproportionate impact of COVID-19? Black, brown, and Native people are carrying this pandemic on their backs, in their hearts — and to their graves. Their history, and their stories, are ours.

This is an opportunity to listen. Even when it hurts.

For LGBTQ people, we’ve been here before. A devastating epidemic without cure nor vaccine. We died alone. We died because someone said, “They brought it on themselves.” We died because of governmental mismanagement and ignorance of the disease. We died because no one else thought it would happen to them. The dread of epidemics is measured not only by the fear of contagion, but also by the assumed worth of its chosen victims.

This is an opportunity to listen. Even when it hurts.

For people with disabilities, including mental illness, this is an especially precarious time. Whether we are already living with a ventilator or with major depression, we feel the weight and potential threat to our wellbeing. If you are worried about your next paycheck or the solvency of your business, even on a good day, what would that feel like if you layered on top of that a potential loss of health care benefits, another point of stress in an already-stressful existence where even good days can be complicated by potent moments of vulnerability and self-doubt, and the practical considerations of knowing that one little virus might mean fatal pneumonia — or suicide? More than 60 million Americans live with a disability, hidden or not. For some of us, disability means that our lungs and bodies are fragile. For others of us, disability means that our brains and neurosystems are fragile. Either way, we feel the impact of COVID-19 differently and acutely. In the lottery for ventilators and compassionate care, we feel like we are at the back of the line.

This is an opportunity to listen. Even when it hurts.

Immigrants and undocumented people are also bearing a disproportionate burden of the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration has temporarily banned even legal immigration, ostensibly because immigrants present a threat of both infection and to “American jobs.” Immigrants and undocumented people are ineligible for the federal assistance for people whose livelihoods have been affected by COVID-19. In our zeal to contain the “invisible enemy”, we’ve locked down our borders — geopolitical and emotional — to block out, sequester, and exclude other enemies that have nothing to do with our current plight. Should we test people who are coming here from elsewhere? Yes. Should we test everyone to see where we are in terms of containment of the virus? Yes. Let’s consider whether our lockdown of the border is a pragmatic solution to the pandemic, or if it is symbolic of our lockdown on our ability to care about someone else.

This is an opportunity to listen. Even when it hurts.

Listening is a choice, a gift, a competency, and an intention. We do it because it is a way for us to connect to another person. Stories emerge through the listening. Truth becomes animated and alive in the listening. We listen with our ears. We listen with our bodies. We listen with our spirits. We listen through our ancestors. When we listen — truly listen — we let another know, “I am here. I am with you. I may not be able to fix it, but I am beside you.”

Sometimes, it is painful to listen. Right now, it’s very painful to listen. We are stretched. We are stressed. We are hunkered down. Sometimes, we don’t know if we can bear what another person has to tell us because we are trying hard just to care for ourselves. I’d offer that this is precisely the moment when we can barely stand what another has to tell us that we have found what it means to listen, authentically and selflessly.

This is our time. To listen. With our whole beings.

It’s the moment when we are telling the truth — the heaviness, the pain, the despair, the dream, the hope, the fear, the passion, the longing for beauty, even if it isn’t for a “new normal”— that we are bearing witness to all that is offered to us. This is our time to tell, and to listen. Even when it hurts.