Humans 101

A Way to Listen

Real Remedies for Revolutionary Times

Janna Sobel
Human Parts
Published in
24 min readSep 16, 2020


Photo illustration by Martha Sue Coursey

There’s a poem of a book called The Other Way to Listen by my favorite author, Byrd Baylor. It sits on my shelf in the parable/teaching story/wisdom-for-every-age section, squished in next to Till We Have Faces, The Prophet, Tracy’s Tiger, and Daughters of Copper Woman. I’m thinking of it because of the similar title to this essay. But I realize, too, that if you were to just go and read it, you’d have everything I want for you.


People sit down in these circles shy. Pushing hair behind ears, shifting uncomfortable in plastic chairs, looking down at the flower that all their feet make, pointing toward the center… chinos and wingtips, opaque stockings and day heels straight from work. Flat perfumes and deodorants and sweat hang in the still air of the room. If they see the flower too, they don’t say so.

I teach Storytelling because I like people. And helping people tell their stories mostly means helping them tell the truth, which is a nice thing to be part of. So I’ve been putting chairs in circles like this for a while. Mostly in writing and performance centers. But also in businesses, ad agencies, community centers, and for activist groups that use storytelling to build coalitions and spark revolution.

I use storytelling to spark revolution, too. In addition to teaching and coaching, I use it to make a live storytelling show that’s been filling up a cozy 150-seat theater for almost 10 years. In it, eight or nine people of all ages, genders, jobs, identities and backgrounds step on a stage to tell true stories from their lives, and anyone who brings a potluck dish gets in free. The revolution part is that, instead of talking forever about The Wish to Come Together in These Divided Times, we just do. By having a welcoming public space to share without the usual adversarial and competitive stances, people come unguarded. We listen with interest and without the adrenaline of a fight. And in that way, we get closer to people who seem different from us. We learn, find common ground, become friends, and build unlikely (likely) alliances.

Of course, that story show isn’t happening now due to Covid-19, and neither are in-person storytelling classes. And to be honest, that’s okay with me because I was tired. I know I’m not supposed to say that. Seems like we’re all supposed to pretend that American life was just fine before a pandemic, massive unemployment, and civil uprising in response to one-too-many racist murders turned the world upside down. But none of these crises would be happening now if things had been just fine in the Before Times.

A few months ago, I set out to write this essay about storytelling: how we can use it to hurt or heal each other, and how I see it being used to control, divide, and hypnotize a lot of people right now. But the essay wouldn’t let me write past this point without talking about capitalism. I was frustrated by this, as I have no expertise in economic systems, and I feel mostly ridiculous talking about them. So I tried to find paths around that… exploring my brain’s terrain for alternative routes while the hydra-headed riddle-monster of capitalism quietly sat sentinel, waiting for me at the only passable pass. I kicked leaves around my neighborhood looking for a different way, thinking ‘I have no right, no reason, no responsibility to talk about economics…’ and ‘people will think I am stupid/ pretentious/ foolish if I do.’ And then I remembered that, usually, when I feel this much resistance to talking about something, it is because I’ve been taught not to talk about it. So I’m going to try to walk though this part instead of going around, and hope your forgiveness for my total lack of economic expertise.

I mention the different places I’ve taught Storytelling — hospitals, public defenders’ offices, public schools, global corporations, graduate programs, tech conferences, executive ed trainings — because hearing so many personal stories in such different settings over the last decade has had the unintended side-effect of giving me a view of people’s lives across a very broad economic spectrum. And in the decade leading up to the pandemic, I noticed a theme in people’s stories in all of these places, which became more and more common. Increasingly, everywhere, I heard people talking about a type of sorrow that comes from witnessing the degradation and exploitation of the living world, caused by the same systems that keeps them too busy to do anything about it.

It took a while to recognize that theme, because it’s rather big and very sad. But over time its echo became familiar. From glass-walled skyscraper boardrooms to fluorescent-lit church basements, I kept hearing people talk about it being hard to keep grinding at work while continent-sized forests burned, kids sat in cages at our borders, rising waters flooded their family’s city or farmland, or one more unarmed Black person was killed by white police. Listening to all these stories, it started to seem to me like people at all economic levels are effected by living inside a greed-based form of capitalism that broadly exploits life in order to hoard wealth for a few. Even my clients at the very top of the economic ladder seemed to be grieving and grappling with something like an emotional tax that comes with working inside systems that cause this much suffering.

To be sure, in a storytelling class, I’m not fishing for anyone’s views on economics. In story workshops, we play with narrative games and exercises that let people practice turning lived-experience into engaging narrative. There are open-ended prompts like: Tell us a story about your name… about an embarrassing moment… a time you took a leap of faith… a time you were proud of someone… your first crush. People share small and epic stories, funny and thrilling and exciting and profound. The focus is on helping people get easier with the elements of great storytelling, like narrative arc, sensory detail, emotional honesty, stakes and tension, audience rapport, humor and authentic presence.

But on my way out the door, it was hard not to reflect on this theme that seemed to pop up everywhere, and no matter what the prompts were. When a woman told a story about running for local office because her daughter died without money for insulin, or a man told about organizing an expedition halfway around the world to clean up an island that his company polluted, or when someone told about losing their childhood home to fires caused by climate change, or about a father walking for hundreds of miles for a job picking grapes for $2.00 an hour… all of these storeis are the same story. They, and a thousand others like them, are about attempting to be alive inside a system that exploits life.

This is why I don’t think things were fine before the pandemic. And it’s why I don’t think a narcissistic president, a gridlocked government, or an uncontrolled virus are the cause of our problems. I think they are symptoms. Living systems can’t hold when they are exploited and stressed to the brink. Nature and people can’t be exploited and exhausted forever.

But like I said, this essay wasn’t meant to be about capitalism. It’s meant to be about storytelling. This next part reckons with the ways that I believe storytelling has been used on us — and by us — to serve a financial system that exploits life. I do believe that Story is the tool that was used to lead us to look away while the waters were rising. I believe that Story is what deactivated many of us, and kept many others busy fighting with each other, while a small few people ran away with the world. I see still that happening now. So, maybe best for us to get our arms around it.


An unspoken goal of live storytelling shows and classes during the times we could convene in person was to ease the pain of living inside stressed systems, by giving people a place to embrace community, and rejoice in commonality and connections. Live storytelling shows are raucous and joyful, and filled with more laughter and hugs and goodwill than are usual in public spaces. The act of sharing true personal stories not only improves people’s confidence and communication; it sparks empathy and makes peace across dividing lines. It helps people remember that others are valuable and also beautiful, no matter how little we have in common with them. So, many people who do what I do used these storytelling shows, classes, and workshops as little oases where people could come to be replenished. Even if we didn’t talk about it in such mushy terms, we tried to use storytelling for good.

But storytelling is not a tool for good. It’s a neutral tool… like the Force: an ambient but precious resource that can be used by Jedi and Sith alike, to protect life, or to harm it. Story is an invisible element that has shaped human history as much as any on the periodic table. It has been used to sell cars, start wars, and explain the movement of the stars. Stories can foster identity, allegiance, consumption, rebellion, migration, genocide, and reconciliation. Stories can align us with our highest purposes, and give us inspiration and grace, or they can make us ostracize each other, live in shame, and literally scare us to death. Story is a very powerful tool. And so I think it’s worth becoming far more conscious of how we use it, AND how it is used on us.

Storytelling isn’t a tool for good. It is a neutral tool… like the Force. It’s a pervasive resource that can be accessed by Jedi and Sith alike, to protect life or to harm it.

Over the years, I’ve used a handy little litmus test that lets me discern stories that nourish and protect life from stories that harm life. And I’ll share that litmus here, just in case it makes anyone else more adept with the former and less vulnerable to the latter… more Jedi, less Sith.

I don’t make the distinction between helpful and harmful stories along the lines of topic or viewpoint. Because I’ve seen too many people nourished by stories from people with differing viewpoints. I differentiate between stories that nourish life and stories that harm life along the lines of Source, Location, and Point of View.

Stories that protect and nourish life have their Source in some abundance. Parables like those on my bookshelf hold shimmering and hard-won truths that people brought back from the breach to give others as gifts. We’ve likely all read books or seen films that changed our lives. And in these cases, I wager that the teller found something valuable by having engaged deeply with life, and then they generously shared it with you. In an overflow of awe, love, excitement or gratitude, they made a story as a container to pass their treasure on. They wrote Franny & Zooey, or The Chronology of Water or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At their best, religious and traditional stories, folklore and myths do the very same thing: they carry and convey useful knowledge, profound insight, and redeeming love across centuries.

Regardless of when they are made, stories that nourish life are usually Located in a different time or place. Nourishing stories provide a portal for us to enter a space that is reality-adjacent. They give us access to a distant or recent past, a fictional future, or parallel worlds (time that is “once upon a time”). By entering these adjacent spaces, we get to benefit and learn from experiences beyond our own lived experiences. These nourishing stories give us more than we can find within our own timelines.

And finally, stories that nourish tend to be in the Point of View of the first or third person. They are either spoken with the ownership of the “I” — as in, “I love this… I wanted this… I lost that… I tried this and failed and learned ___,” or they are spoken about a he, she or they: historical people or fictional characters who we can witness and relate to and learn from. Both first- and third-person carry the humble confidence of sharing experience, without presuming anything about the listener, projecting anything on them, or attempting to control them.

I identify stories that do harm along these same three lines: Source, Location and Point of View.

Instead of having their Source in abundance, stories that harm life tend to have their source in lack. They are made by someone who wants something from you, and who is using a story as a tool to get it. People and organizations tell stories in order to get many things: your approval, your loyalty, your vote, your investment, forgiveness, compliance, and labor. We can probably all conjure images of advertisers, businesses, pundits, public figures, and elected officials using story to get things from us. And we can probably all recall the feelings of distrust that type of storytelling triggers. But most of us also have friends and family members who tell stories in order to get: admiration, argument, agreement, sympathy. And most of us tell stories to get us things, too! Especially on social media, but also in personal interactions. We tell stories that are designed to get us attention, approval, respect, love, forgiveness, comfort, and congratulations.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with wanting any of those things. It’s deeply natural to want them all. It is also natural for a candidate to want my vote, for a leader to want team investment, and for a business to want customers. The problem comes when we sideways use story to manipulate others into giving us those things we want — instead of plainly owning our desire and vision, and forthrightly asking for what we need. This is a problem precisely because of story’s power. Because storytelling is a superpower, we are obligated to use it to nourish life — not to extract from life. Fables the world over have fairly warned us of what happens when we use power (the wishes and wings we are given) for greedy purposes. In every moral, mythical, spiritual, and religious tradition, the ethics of how we use power matter a whole lot.

As for the matter of Location, harmful stories are usually told about the present place and time. And here, I don’t mean fiction that’s set in the present, or an article that shares info or opinion about a current situation. I mean applying narrative structure to the actual present-time experience of living. Telling a story about the present means telling ourselves, or telling others, the story of How Things Go. It means applying a narrative trajectory to actual life, and then only being able to see the parts of life that fall inside that narrative.

Present-time stories have titles like: Liberals Are Evil/Conservatives Are Idiots You Have Problems and Our Product Will Solve Them… The World Is Doomed and Nothing Can Be Done… Only X Candidate Can Save Us… Our Family/Church/Company/Country Is the Best… The Other Guys Are Out to Get You… Men Always Leave… Racism Is Over… etc.. Present-time stories can comfort, motivate, or unite. They can be negative or positive; optimistic or pessimistic. However they are angled, they limit our view because they are smaller than real life, which is more vast, complex, nuanced, astonishing, terrifying and beautiful than any story we can tell about it. Stories that are used to limit our view of reality are deeply dangerous.

Finally, stories that do harm attempt to speak for others. They are are often spoken in the second person Point of View — they describe the experience of a “You” who is being addressed. “You want this… you feel this… we know you need this… we empathize with your situation.” Or, they speak in generalizations about other real people whose experience the speaker cannot and should not speak for: “Those people want this… they always do that… they hate you… they fear you… they want you to suffer…” In either case, the speaker is trespassing, by claiming to know an experience that isn’t theirs to know.

Before I leave the subject of how stories can be used to help or harm, I want to mention one other way that I see story being used to do us damage. It doesn’t fit into the litmus just above, because it is a way that we can use any type of story — even the best, most nourishing ones! — to hurt ourselves.

When we binge story — series, films, podcasts, talk shows, news, social media, video games, virtual reality games — in all our down time, we feed the delusion that we can alter our reality through narrative consumption. When we turn to story to distract ourselves from pain, boredom, or general feelings of discomfort, it can feel really nice in the moment. And very benign. Anyone who’s slipped into the stupor of binge-watching anything or loosing time to social media knows the relief of turning our brains off for a bit, and just passively receiving content. It doesn’t seem to hurt anything. But the trouble is more long-term.

Story worlds are not meant for daily consumption. They are meant for the night: for the fire and the table, after a day well-lived and a life well-lived. Stories are only supposed to be dessert. We aren’t supposed to feast on them all day long. Chronically living inside of story worlds distracts us from the opportunities and responsiblities of real life. It lets us put off challenges we would rather not face, and avoid improving our circumstances. A common side-effect of bingeing story is the feeling of being disconnected and ineffectual; a growing delusion that the world is a show and we are spectators and the outcome is already known.

That feeling is a lie. But it can make us less excited to get out of bed in the morning. In a story-addled state, we are more inclined to feel like we are helpless and useless watchers, and that our real-life participation doesn’t matter. It makes us passive, and far more susceptible to both conspiracy theories and propaganda. And this illusion of ineffectuality is the ground where capitalism and storytelling come to dance together. When we are story-addled and apathetic, capitalism takes our longing for a more engaged, lively, satisfying life and sells it back to us as cars & trucks, beer & wine, political identities, Good Wars, meals delivered to our doors, seasonal decor, and tech tech tech. We are much more apt to buy what’s being sold to us when we feel ineffectual and disconnected. Which is handy, because consumer capitalism’s favorite story to tell us is the one where we can buy back our happiness.

I mean this literally. The story formula taught in many corporate storytelling workshops and advertising trainings, is not a secret. The classic sales story formula starts by “empathizing” with the customer’s pain and affirming their lack, and then it completes a neat little narrative loop by showing how a given product, idea, political party, or conflict, meets the customer’s need or solves their problem. That’s all. It is an easy narrative pattern to spot. But being already addled by story makes it harder for us to spot it, and much more likely to be swayed… to consume, combat, or comply, as needed.


Which brings me back to Storytelling class. Working in training centers that offer professional development, many of my students are sent (by companies or by feelings of necessity) to learn how to tell that story I just described: The Story That Sells. People come wanting to learn how to use story as a tool to obtain things: investment, customer loyalty, new clients, votes, brand recognition, etc. And that is… okay. People don’t come thinking that they are asking to learn a dark art. They just want a handy tool for their jobs.

But I don’t think they feel entirely comfortable with seeking to learn how to use story to manipulate others, either. Which is why, I imagine, they sit quiet and uncomfortable in those circles on the first day of class, looking at their feet. Because we have all had story used to manipulate us, distract us, sell us, sedate us, and make us fight each other, quite enough by now. And I think that deep down, none of us wants to be a part of that cycle anymore.

It’d be more narratively interesting if I told you that I used to teach people to use story to manipulate and sell, but then had some big awakening where I realized I’d been working for the Empire all along. But that isn’t true. What is true is that I’m kind of a weirdo who had a couple of serious illnesses as a kid and young adult, and those confrontations with mortality gave me some direct acquaintance with the preciousness of life. They left me much more inclined to want to use any powers I have to protect life, rather than exploit it.

(I’ll mention that those early experiences also forced me to notice the difference between the stories I tell myself about life, and what is actually happening around me. Having to let go of the stories I’d told about how my own life should go, was painful. But doing so led to a couple of astonishing discoveries. One was that, without those stories, the world still holds me, without any narrative effort on my part. I discovered that if I quit narratively claiming the world for long enough, I can feel it claim me, and that made for an awe and gratitude I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I don’t always remember this. I often waste the gift of my time clinging to prefab stories about How Life Goes and Who I Am and Who You Are. And I’ll lose time in stories I addictively consume on my laptop and through earbuds. When I am story-addled like this, I hate it… and am much more likely to believe the answer to all my problems is a pair of $90 bamboo fibre yoga pants. But it’s the tension and the journey back and forth between these states of grateful ease and hypnotized consumption that makes me teach. I know I can’t control how anyone uses their storytelling powers. But if, through play and exploration, I can help people remember to lay their stories down for long enough to remember how they actually fit and feel in the world, they become much better storytellers naturally.)

So in class, we move the chairs and play a bunch of games that let us laugh and find common ground and remember that we are totally capable. And people stop looking at their feet and start meeting each other’s eyes and smiling and using words to say what they mean — instead of what they think they should say. This accuracy is what brings the house down at story slams and tech conferences and TED talks: people being themselves and artfully telling the truth.

After many years of watching people of all stripes learn and tell stories, I will tell you that there’s one quality I notice in the very best of them… the ones who bring down the house. Of course these are people who tell stories that nourish life instead of harming it. These tellers want to leave listeners better than they found them. But perhaps the prerequisite for that, and the main thing that seems to determine someone’s ability to tell a truly great story, is the way a storyteller lives their life.

People who tell the best stories seem to be the ones who don’t hide inside of stories while real life is happening to them. Instead of bingeing videos about the ocean, they run into the waves. They engage with life and notice it while they do. They notice smells and colors and sounds while they move through the world, enough to remember those details later. They notice tiny urban rabbits, and seasonal changes, and new graffiti. They notice the way a river in their town changes, and when birdsongs go away. They see strangers who need help or seem kind. Without the constant internal narrative of This is Who I Am and This is What to Expect from a Day, they pay attention to life as it actually unfolds around them. They listen. They find compassion for different points of view.

People who tell the best stories are those who engage with life deeply.

When we stop constantly living inside stories, we may need to develop a stronger internal infrastructure that lets us bear pain and gratitude and heartbreak and hope and rage. Instead of flinching at a feeling and grabbing our phones to numb it out, we’ll have to learn to experience it, and let it motivate our action. Instead of resigning ourselves to optimism, pessimism, or other spectator sports, we begin to stand up, speak out, and get involved. Living this way, we meet new heroes, have adventures, fall in love, ask questions and get answers. We tell the truth and meet the consequences. We experience triumph, failure and redemption, and we collect some incredible stories along the way.

Everyone who teaches storytelling knows that as many shapes as it takes, in order for a story to be a story, there has to be transformation. And so, a very beautiful irony is that we can only tell excellent stories if we live without story for long enough to let life transform us.

Engaging more deeply with life might even let us rise to the occasion of repairing our broken systems to allow life to begin to recover and prosper again: in ourselves, in others, and in the natural world. If we were able to do that… well, it would make for some pretty epic stories to tell at the end of a day, and at the ends of our lives.


When you feel like it’s a healthy time for a story, here’s one from me, about a time when I was able to lay my own stories down for long enough to notice the life in front of me.

At the end of 2015, I was staying with good friends in a hilly little town outside Portland along the Columbia River. I was waiting for news from a surgeon there who was going to remove a tumor from my pancreas.

My friends’ house was high on a hill, near meadows on cliffs that, on misty mornings, would sometimes have fresh rainbows spring up from them, just feet from my face. During the day, while my friends were at work, I walked a lot. Breathing fresh air and being in nature was anchoring. I sometimes walked to get groceries, or into the little valley village to look in thrift store windows. But it rained a lot and because it was winter, water sometimes turned to ice on the hills, and then walking was hard. On those days, I’d call the only taxi service in town, and felt lucky when I got Jake, one of just three drivers who worked for them. As time went on, I got him more and more often, so maybe he was happy to spend time with me, too.

Jake was a white man in maybe his late fifties, with a neatly combed silver-red beard, a bright smile, and good heart. On a regular basis, he’d ask me if it was okay to pick up someone from the hospital and take them home for free during our rides. He did this several times, cracking jokes and making people laugh all the way to their houses from urgent care or doctors appointments. When I asked him about it, he said a lot of people in town shared his direct number as someone you could call any time, day or night, for a ride. Since that cab service was the only game in town, he said he wanted to be available. And he didn’t charge people coming from medical visits, because, he said, there’s no profit in other people’s pain.

On longer rides to and from my appointments in Portland, Jake and I talked easily. We shared thoughts and questions and adventures and lessons, and a lot of what he said was so oddly relevant to what I was facing that I sometimes wanted to take notes. I didn’t, but I tried to remember everything. Over time, he started to seem sort of like an angel to me… like something a little bit different from a person. Or maybe like a person who had crossed some painful threshold into grace while he was still alive. I saw him maybe once every three or four days. And as we talked and laughed and mused about the world, we became good friends.

One day, driving to the grocery store in a rainstorm, we found a way that we were very different. In the winter of 2015, Donald Trump was launching his run for president. I was/am a “progressive” white person, and Jake was/is a “conservative” white person… in about equal and opposite measure. We stumbled on this when talking about labor and unions and migrant workers and before I knew it, I was hearing the most racist, xenophobic talk I’d ever heard. It scared me, and made me really sad.

As Jake talked, I could feel my heart beating fast, and the knee-jerk, adrenaline-fueled desire to defend people I love and my point of view. I could feel all the stories I knew about ‘people like him’ rising up to be told. I was flooded with the feeling of urgent responsibility to “stop” and “interrupt” and “call out” all his -isms (racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia). There is a story that white liberal people tell ourselves about other “white people like this,” which is that they are ignorant, and in-need-of-education. We feel we must fight them or save them, if we are decent.

I believe that protective impulse is correct when we are putting ourselves between hateful rhetoric and its target. But, if there is no one around being attacked… when it’s just white person sharing with another white person… I feel like there may be a better way. Or, I felt like that on that day. Because it was starting to seem to me in 2015 that liberal people shouting at and mocking conservative people wasn’t actually doing any good at all.

So that day in the car, I took a deep breath and decided to lay down all the stories I was suddenly telling myself about Jake. After he said a few more things that sounded like a lot of hatred, I paused a little and said, “So, I want to be up front and tell you that you and I are really different in this area. Like, we have very different views. And what you’re saying makes me really sad, and a little scared. And we could just do what everybody does at this point and fight. Or stop speaking to each other. But, I’ve come to really like you. Knowing you during this time has been a grace, and I’d like to stay friends. I don’t know if that’s possible now, but I wonder if, over our next few rides, you’d let me just listen to you, so I can better understand where you’re coming from.”

I was grateful that he said yes. And over the next few rides that’s what we did. He talked and I listened, which I was in a position to do, because I wasn’t a target of his prejudices. While I listened, it hurt to hear a lot of what he said. But I didn’t make any retorts or comebacks, and I didn’t argue. Every few days when I got into his car, I just greeted him warmly and said, “Where were we?” Sometimes I asked questions with a desire to better understand where he was coming from. Sometimes while I listened, I felt like a bad white person for letting him lay out his views, uncontested. I didn’t know where it all was going, or what would come next.

One day, on a long ride into Portland, Jake talked for most of the hour there, waited for me at the hospital, and then talked for about 20 minutes of the way back, until he was just done. “Anyway,” he said after a long pause, “Thanks for listening. I really appreciate that you didn’t jump down my throat.” I thanked him, too, for sharing so openly. We were quiet for a long time as I thought about what I’d heard, watching infinite giant pines pass and frozen waterfalls outside my cold window, sloping up the gorge farther than I could see. It had all started off sounding like hate, and then it came to sound more like anger, and then bewilderment, and then fear. It sounded like he’d been consuming a lot of stories himself, instead of directly knowing any of the people he was talking about. In fact, he didn’t seem to know any people of color, any gay people, any immigrants, or others that he feared. Then Jake said, “How about you? How do you feel about these things?”

The beauty of that question stunned me. Because in a context of argument, it is never asked. I sensed he was only asking because we were not arguing, and because I’d listened to him first. Maybe I had earned his trust, because it seemed now like he was genuinely interested. So, because he asked, I told him truthfully how it felt to hear him say what he did about my friends and family. I told him stories about specific people I love who are in all the groups he spoke about. I told him about ways that these friends have saved my life, enriched my life, been the actual best things about my life. I shared some of my favorite stories about them, and some stories of how they have been harassed and discriminated against. I also told him how I thought he would love them if he met them. I didn’t argue anything. I didn’t have to, because he was listening.

Jake was quiet when he dropped me off. But he looked me in my eyes and said thanks, and then drove away.

I had the feeling I might not see him again. But later that night, he sent a text. The kind of text that if you laid it out might be seven or eight inches long. In it, he said that while he was talking to me on the way back from Portland, he had heard his own voice, and that he was ashamed of how hateful it sounded. He said he realized he was ignorant. That a lot of his views were shaped by things he had heard, and not by knowing people who are different from him. He said he was really sorry, and that he was reckoning. He said, “I don’t think I would have heard myself if you hadn’t listened to me. If we’d been fighting, I would have been too busy defending myself to hear you, either.” He said that he wanted to keep listening and learning, so that he forms opinions about the world based on understanding and experience, and not just fear-mongering.

When I wrote back, I thanked him. I told him I was honored by his trust. Something I don’t think I told him but wish I had, is that I was grateful to better understand where he was coming from, too.

I know this kind of thing doesn’t happen often. Jake’s and my situation was unique in a lot of ways. We had an opportunity to keep encountering each other when it would have been easier to give up, and we had breaks in between to think. But there was a lesson in that experience that I’ve kept, and that I sometimes want to share. Especially now, when I watch people shouting their stories at each other on social media, and on news and talk shows and presidential debate stages. I don’t imagine that all of our country’s boiling-point tribalism can suddenly be quelled by listening. But it might be worth trying, just to see what happens.

I’m looking at my motives for sharing this story. Reflecting on whether I’m telling it to get something from you, or give you something. I can recognize some wishes to get: a desire for approval or appreciation for having “done something right” in the situation, and the quiet, tenacious wish to feel like “a good white person.” Admitting that feels gross, but I guess it is human, and best to be aware of. But I also want to give you something with this story, which is what the experience gave me: a reminder that good, unexpected things can sometimes happen when we can lay down our stories and just pay attention to real life. When we listen, without all the stories we lay on top of a moment.



Janna Sobel
Human Parts

Janna writes and performs, teaches and coaches. She runs the show and the game Find her at