Listening Lessons

Transforming expectations
July 24, 2013

On a particularly slow day during my summer research in rural Kenya, I went for a directionless walk down to the shores of a gleaming Lake Victoria. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a young boy walking hesitantly behind me. I spoke first, asking him where he was going. “To the store,” was the brief, unelaborate answer. We walked in silence for a few moments. “Where are you going?” he asked. I didn’t know. Instead, the words that tumbled out of my mouth were a request to accompany him to the store. What proceeded next was completely antithetical to my organized, directional existence at Duke. I, a conspicuously foreign young woman, found myself tagging along aimlessly behind a small boy I barely knew because I didn’t know what else to do with myself.

Eventually we arrived at his primary school, silent and empty of all its students on a weekend. Spotting a copy of Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, I sat down on one of the narrow wooden benches and flipped through the pages. My guide took a seat next to me, pointed to the text, and whispered a request for me to read. Before long, we were taking turns reading out loud. Time seemed to slow. When we finished, his voice had grown from a murmur to a steady recitation. I asked him what he thought of the book. At first, he wouldn’t meet my eyes. His answer was hesitant and measured. I waited for him, and he became more assured of himself. When he finished and finally looked up at me, my wide grin showed my delight that he could be quite opinionated. He gave a little chuckle, too. In that moment, I realized that my presence in the community would not necessarily be defined by my actions or research project but rather by my willingness to listen.

Over the next few weeks, we spent more time together. Initially, we bonded over books. Huddled together, we would make out words on the page while elderly women balancing buckets of water on their heads passed by, smiling at the sight. Though shy, he opened up. I listened to him talk about his family, his school, and his friends. In turn, I told him about my family and what life at Duke could be like. Sometimes I listened to bursts of excitement, other times, solemn stories. Often, I just listened to sounds—the sound of him crying about a sick father, the sound of silence when he had no words to express his emotions. Even in those moments, in all my efforts to be a lifting presence, I knew my most important role was simply to acknowledge his feelings and thoughts by listening without judgment.

Back at Duke, I struggled to find a place for listening in an environment that measured my abilities by what I could do. Every time I sent off my resume in a frantic scramble to find a summer internship, I grew more confused. Was this how I wanted to be measured? Although I was surrounded by students who prided themselves on being doers, I wanted first and foremost to be a listener and thinker. Was it possible to align those values with activities or work that allowed me to serve others in my best capacity? I didn’t know.

Over a year and a half later, I found my answer. It was my first time shadowing a palliative-care physician. I was apprehensive as I followed the doctor into a meeting room, where I was introduced to another physician and a social worker. The conversation turned to a subject that constitutes the core of palliative care—death and dying. All of us nodded in agreement when the physician pointed out how we don’t know how to talk about death and dying as a society. Then, he said something I’ve never heard any professional, let alone doctor, say: “The most important part of my job is listening.” He paused thoughtfully. “It’s so hard for me to not talk, but I have to remember the most important thing is to listen.”

Later that day, I listened as the team telephoned a parent whose child will probably not live to pose for prom pictures. As the father’s deep, hoarse voice floated across the room, I felt his internal struggle as he tried to plan for something almost unthinkable. Yet I also felt his gratitude. Even over the phone, he knew that every single person in that room was listening to him, that they cared enough to acknowledge his pain even if they couldn’t fully share the depth of it. How odd and yet fitting that the people who most realize the importance of listening are those who deal with the subject we are least inclined to talk about. In many ways, palliative care is about affirming a measure of life in the face of death. It’s during the hardest journeys that people want to tell their stories, to find comfort in knowing that someone else understands, to leave something tangible behind in the form of memories or wisdom for another.

The most valuable contribution I can make—whether that be as a service-learning student, a community member, or a future physician—always will be listening. It took me two trips to a community half a world away, over a year of feeling disconnected at Duke, and a single phone call to truly learn what that means.


Liu is a rising senior from Southern California majoring in public policy and biology. She spent her past two summers in Kenya working on global- health research and storytelling through DukeEngage and the Research In Practice Program. She’s active with the Duke chapter of FACE AIDS.