I’ll change her name, but not her story.
Her story changed me, so, I can’t change it.
But her name belongs to her, and I’ll let her keep it.
It had been a week since I first held a “Free Listening” sign. In that week, dozens of people stopped and told me stories of recovery, heart break, and triumph.
I listened to them the way we listen to the radio: with an arms length interest ready to change the channel if it gets bad.
But today was different.
Her name was Melissa.
When she emerged from the smog of the North Hollywood Metro station, she walked directly at me, pointed to my “Free Listening” sign, and said:
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I’ll listen to you. For free.”
“I can say anything, and you’ll just listen?”
“No one’s listened to me in 20 years.”
Sometimes you can actually see a broken heart.
Melissa’s story is difficult, but not unusual, unfortunately.
I’ll tell a little, but you can fill in the gaps.
She was from Utah. When she was 12 her ________ would come into her room at night. Her ______ would stay until he was finished. When she was 17 her _______ found out about it, and instead of kicking her ____ out, she kicked Melissa out of the house.
Homeless, she found work at a ____ club. The manager gave her a room in the back in exchange for allowing ______ to watch her shower. After a year, she left and found work on the streets with her husband.
“He’s not a pimp, he’s my husband.”
Two kids later.
Now she does “parties” where she has ____ with several men at once.
“It's just easier that way.”
When I met her, she was on her way home from a night of _____ with _____ men at once.
“You’re the first man in 20 years who’s just listened to me.”
Sometimes you can actually see a heart begin to heal.
As she walked off, I realized 2 things:
1) Everyone is a Novel. John Koenig in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls this idea “Sonder”. It’s the realization that everyone is living a story as full and complete as yours. That everyone you walk past has experienced the effects of pain and joy, victory and defeat, just like you. The circumstances will be different, but the essence is the same; and, it’s in the essence, not the details, that we find our union. Listen to someone-- you’ll know what I mean.
2) Listening is Powerful. Listening is powerful because it requires us to be truly present. When two people experience the communion that comes from mutual presence, the effect is tangible for both the speaker and the listener. When this happens, Free Listening becomes “Free With-ing”. And. It. Is. Powerful.
Melissa shared her story with me 4 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it.
In fact, it inspired me.
No one should go twenty years without being listened to.
Today, our Free Listening movement has taken on the name Urban Confessional. We have volunteers in 50 countries and all over the US opening their hearts to strangers.
On April 11th, we celebrate the 2nd Annual Free Listening Day.
Free Listening Day is an opportunity for the entire world to Free Listen together, and maybe, just maybe, meet Melissa…
Whose name I changed, but whose story I couldn't.
Together we can hear the world.