Sidewalk Talk offers moments of human connection that heal the speaker and teach the listener
By Meri Hilalian
“Hi, would you like to be listened to today?” asks Traci Ruble, founder of the volunteer-led community listening project Sidewalk Talk.
Rooted in the idea that developing people’s capacity for listening and expanding opportunities for others to be heard builds healthier communities, participants hit the streets in teams to sit face-to-face with anyone willing to share their story — or speak whatever’s on their mind, really — one heartfelt conversation at a time.
Last summer I joined Ruble, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist, to lend my ears to willing strangers in Downtown Santa Monica.
It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation with strangers, and eye contact is a powerful thing. When you’ve trained yourself to periodically look away during casual conversation so as not to come across as overly dominant, the idea of gazing at somebody intently is actually quite scary. I braced myself for the experience; uncrossing my arms, waiting for somebody to take a seat.
Without hesitation, a young man, bright-eyed and eager, sat down and shared his reflections. “My mom left me when I was a kid. I was in the child welfare system,” he began. At first glance, I would’ve never assumed such a well put-together person would have such intense experiences of abandonment, moving from place to place 60 times, he told me.
He went on to explain that he’s expecting a major life change — a big promotion at work — but didn’t feel deserving, wondering why this good thing was happening to him. I could see the pain in his eyes and hear the uncertainty in his voice. “I’m scared,” he said. “Am I ready? Am I worth it?”
Nodding my head, I acknowledged his thoughts and privately marveled at his resilience. By the end of the conversation he said his worries had dissipated; that he’s ready for the next step, and feels more confident.
I was eager to hear another person’s story, and it wasn’t long before a redhead dressed in workout clothes took a seat and offered me a skeptical smile. This woman was stunning. Freckles decorated her face, and her naturally curly hair made her blue-green eyes stand out. She seemed nervous, so I reassured her that this was a safe space.
“I’m about to cry. I’ve only shared this with a few people,” she said, explaining that she’s blocked out most of her childhood and often makes up stories in her head to escape memories of sexual abuse. Sometimes she has trouble differentiating between what’s real and what’s imagined, but recently she’d discovered a photograph of her abuser violating her.
I couldn’t grasp the emotions this stirred up — suddenly being confronted with physical proof of being violated. Although the memories are a blur, she said the body stores trauma. I was tearful, angry and incredibly heavy-hearted for this woman. I thought about her and her story for a very long time.
Never expecting to feel the weight of people’s stories in this degree, I am reminded to extend compassion and empathy to the people I come across, be they complete strangers or loved ones, and to reserve my judgments.
Ruble describes these moments of human connection as “preventive medicine.”
“We know exactly what happens in the brain and the nervous system when someone feels hurt,” she says. “And the only place we should be getting [a healing connection] is the therapist’s office? No way!”
Find out how to become a volunteer listener at sidewalk-talk.org.