Are You Listening?

Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

The documentary, A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake, follows a group of actors as they take the message of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the war-torn countries of Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and former Yugoslavia.  The actors artistically convey the message of the commission through a play in which they are the translators of the commission.  In each country they make it a point to have people from both sides of the conflict attend the play.  This decision brings out not only the fresh memories of the atrocities of the past in these countries but also the unresolved conflicts of the actors themselves.  At one point in the movie the actors find themselves in a disagreement about the best way in which to run their post play discussions.  Some of the actors felt like their voices were not being heard or their opinions were being undercut by the others.  It is clear some of the actors felt like they were not being listened to.  The question became how can people be made to feel free to express their opinions and experiences, even when they will naturally differ from others.  In short, how do people listen to each other?

This documentary has caused me to reflect on the act or art of listening and the power that it has.  What does it mean to listen well?  Is it possible to objectively listen?  Or does listening always include a subjective element to it?  What happens to people when they listen to each other?   What is the power of listening?  Is and how is listening interrelated to forgiveness, storytelling, healing, and vulnerability?  Have we, as a society, lost the ability to listen to each other?  If so, how do we regain or relearn the ability to listen?

The documentary posits many of these questions and many others without providing a clear answer to most of them.  This lack of clear answers is purposeful because each person has to answer them for themselves.  However, the panel discussion after the showing at the UN expounded upon some these questions.

The movie starts with an interview with the original translators of the Truth and Reconciliation commission.  The translators spoke of how they had to really listen, to authentically translate, and to not choose sides.  This job required them to relinquish their own emotions, experiences, and feelings in order to authentically represent what the other person was saying.  They were trying to be completely objective while attempting to interpret what was said, translate it, and incorporate another person’s voice and emotions into their translation.  Therefore, listening well includes subjective and empathetic elements of interpretation and another’s emotions.  This empathetic element of listening seems to be very much tied to forgiveness because if a person is able to see another in himself, he can extend the forgiveness to another that he desires in return.  This empathy is made possible by the universal vulnerability in which all humanity partakes.  When vulnerability encounters vulnerability, healing occurs.  A person made be helped more by the telling of our own wretched pasts.

It seems pretty obvious from the radical polarization our society is experiencing that we have lost the ability to listen.  If we are to ever regain this ability, we have to first realize that just because we listen to someone does not necessarily mean that we will be listened to in return.  Second, we have to be able to look each other in the eye and be able to recognize our shared humanity.  In other words, we have to take responsibility for how we choose to see the people around us.  Finally, we have to recognize the goodness of the other person and the nugget of commonality between us of radically opposed beliefs/sides and then we can go from there.

Written by Aaron Stolle, 2016 batch 3 North America intern.