By Mark E. Smith
It wasn’t her sharing being diagnosed at just 19 with multiple sclerosis that surprised me, nor was I surprised that now 20 years later, she’s effectively paralyzed from the neck, down. After all, I work in the wheelchair industry, and these are the stories I hear every day. No, I never get used to them, but such stories are the reality of those I serve.
However, what she said at the end of our conversation made my world stop: “Thank you for hearing me,” she said. “It’s been so long since I’ve felt heard.”
My heart paused to comprehend the profoundness of her words. With her disease progressed to the point of full body paralysis, having undergone so many life changes along the way, her biggest concern wasn’t any of that – it was simply wanting to be heard.
How many of us have felt that way – unheard? I have, and what I learned is that to be heard is to be acknowledged as a person, and when we’re not, it hurts. To not be heard is to not get our fundamental needs met. To not be heard is to not have our feelings validated. To not be heard is to not be valued. To not be heard is to not be seen. The pain behind being unheard haunts us to our core. When we don’t feel heard by our partners, by our families, by our communities, it’s really easy to feel as if we don’t exist.
Yet, we do exist – fully, completely, rightfully. And, it’s not that we’re unheard; rather it’s that others – wrongfully – aren’t listening. See, no one truly goes unheard. A heart beating makes the ultimate sound. Yet, many of us don’t listen, where insensitivity or ignorance or prejudice can make us deaf to those around us. The hearts of others are beating; we simply don’t listen to their breathtaking cadence.
When that woman expressed to me her gratitude toward my hearing her, it reminded me of an ultimate truth: To know what it’s like to be unheard teaches us what it’s like to truly listen.