Friday, February 06, 2009

`I Listened More Than I Talked'

A friend and former colleague in upstate New York has lost her job with the newspaper where she worked for 28 years. Her anger vies with despair for dominance. Like me, she’s in her late fifties. She’s not na├»ve and knows journalism has always been a pitiless business. She never went to college, and started at the paper writing “chicken dinner” news for what used to be called the women’s pages. She learned everything on the job and excelled at it, and they let her go.

Commiserating can be touchy. Some people (I’m one of them) don’t want to hear it. Some want a sympathetic ear and nothing more (my jobless friend is among them). Some want you to fix their troubles and get angry if you don’t. Sympathy usually sounds dutiful and phony in my inner ear. And saying you know how they feel is presumptuous but you want to say something.

As usual of late I’m reminded of Chekhov. In March 1897, he was dining with his editor and friend Alexey Suvorin when he suffered a hemorrhage in his right lung. As a doctor and patient, Chekhov could no longer deny his tuberculosis, and he spent more than two weeks in a St. Petersburg clinic. V.S. Pritchett (in Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free) takes it from there:

“He was plagued by visitors, he said, who came to see him two at a time, each one begging him not to speak and at the same time pestering him with questions. The worst was Tolstoy, who did not stop talking about himself for four hours. The incurable egoist said he had given up writing Resurrection and had started a long book, clearing up, once and for all, the question of art.”

That was Tolstoy’s idea of comforting a sick acquaintance. As Simon Karlinsky writes in a footnote in Letters of Anton Chekhov: “The medical personnel at the clinic must have realized that Tolstoy’s visit was exciting and exhausting their patient, but there was nothing they could do: one didn’t ask Lev Tolstoy to leave.” In an April 16, 1897, letter to his friend Mikhail Menshikov, Chekhov describes the novelist’s visit (translation by Karlinsky and Michael Henry Heim):

“Tolstoy came to see me while I was at the clinic and we had a most interesting conversation, interesting mainly for me because I listened more than I talked. We discussed immortality. He recognizes immortality in its Kantian form, assuming that all of us (men and animals) will live on in some principle (such as reason or love), the essence of which is a mystery. But I can only imagine such a principle or force as a shapeless, gelatinous mass; my I, my individuality, my consciousness would merge with this mass – and I feel no need for this kind of immortality. I do not understand it, and Lev Nikolayevich was astonished that I don’t.”

Talking with a friend just sacked from her job is not the same, I know, as visiting an acquaintance with advanced tuberculosis. What the situations share is loss and fear, neither of them mine. The event is not about me, and I’m not there to lecture, meddle, fix or parade the depth of my sensitivity. For what it’s worth, Kathy cussed a lot and thanked me for doing the same. She said it felt good, which is better than commiseration.


Ron Slate said...

Almost ten years ago I had to fire someone. I escorted him into a conmference room and gave him the news. He said to me, "But I have a mortgage." Just a few months later, the VP of HR at the company called to tell me that "now would be a good time to work out your separation package." Meaning: You're out. These exchanges taught me a great deal about the role of brevity and economy when communicating something tragic. Trouble is stitched into our DNA. We know how to move on. In bad times, keep a dark corner in the heart for refuge. And don't take on a bigger debt than you're willing to suffer through tough moments.

Art Durkee said...

Listening is an art. In fact, it's the art of compassion with detachment from outcomes. Far too few writers listen well, which is shocking when you consider how many writers were or are in the journalism trade. Far too many writers, as well as artists, are more interested in expressing themselves than in listening.

ricpic said...

I think egoist Tolstoy was probably of more help to Chekhov in his despair than any number of well meaning sympathetic bores would have been.

Tolstoy's stimulating "big issues" talk took Chekhov out of himself, if only for a few hours.

Whether this was Tolstoy's intent is beside the point. Largeness is what we want in life. Far better medicine than sympathy.