Hello Out There

A twenty-year old man screams and throws a tray of nuts and bolts at a staff member. A guitarist sits on a park bench, unpacks her instrument, and begins to play. A dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand people gather in the open space outside a government building, singing and holding signs. An elderly woman calls her neighbor to make sure she has a ride to the next night’s community meeting. A teenager puts on a “Love Has No Gender” tee shirt and heads out for a night on the town with his boyfriend. A gunman walks into a Sunday morning church service with the express purpose of killing as many liberals as he can before the police kill him. A retired minister looks over his latest letter to the editor of the local paper, makes one final change, and hits “send.”

It’s easy to see how all these people are different, but the important thing is how they are all alike. It’s a basic human drive, maybe one of the most important. All of these people are trying to make sure that they are heard, that their story is told. They are looking for confirmation that their stories have meaning and value. That need cuts across economic, cultural, race, age, gender, and class divisions. 

What’s more, in the examples listed above, the people are more than likely choosing what they believe is the best way they have to make sure their voice is heard, maybe even the only way they can find. The screaming man may be a client at a sheltered workshop and have little or no language skills. The guitarist may be so insecure about her gift that a seldom used path in a park is the only stage she can bring herself to occupy. The elderly woman may have limited mobility, the teenager may live in an environment where just stepping out in public is an act of extreme bravery, the church shooter may not have the financial means or the speaking ability to take his outrage to Washington DC, and the minister may no longer have a pulpit from which to speak. The fact that some of these methods are poorly chosen, at best ineffective and at worst deadly to whoever happens to be in the line of fire, does not negate the person’s need to be heard. It does sometimes mean that whatever they were trying to say does not get through, and innocent people sometimes suffer for that failure. Bruce Cockburn wrote a song about a Central American villager watching the government helicopters returning day after day to intimidate and terrorize him and his neighbors. The title of the song is, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and it speaks to the feeling of powerlessness the singer feels, confronted by overwhelming force. He dreams of getting his hands on something that would, just for a moment, level the field. The song doesn’t say what would certainly happen to the man and his village if he were to fulfill his dream of being able to strike back; we all know how that would end. For one moment, though, he would not be what he is now – mute. The drive to be heard is not confined to, or even based in, the area of rational, reasonable thinking. It’s deeper than that. It’s the common thread among all of us, and the great majority of us are limited in the methods available to make our voices heard, so we do what we can. We build and maintain friend and family relationships, join organizations, develop opinions about public figures in sports or entertainment or politics or other areas, and find like-minded folks to tell us their stories and listen to ours in return. It keeps us connected and gives us recognition, and that fulfills a great need. Those that can’t find an acceptable way to be heard are the sad, frightening, and sometimes dangerous ones, and fortunately the exception. Most of us discover ways to speak, sing, or dance with those around us.

I’ve been asked a few times about Boone, the main character in the Boone series, and I think the answer to why I write about him is what I’m wrestling with in this little piece. He’s a teenager on the fringes of society, without money, looks, education, family, or a group in the community he can turn to when he needs to grieve or celebrate. He’s stumbling toward adulthood and making a lot more mistakes than most, and the tribe he assembles around himself is an unusual group to say the least. It serves an essential purpose in that its members give him the assurance that he isn’t shouting into the void. He doesn’t realize that, any more than he realizes that he is doing the same thing for them, especially Gamaliel. I think of Boone as a kind of Everyman; there is a lot about him that seems different than most of us, but in some of the most important ways, he is very much like all of us.

We all need to have our voices heard. In the act of filling that need we can also give those around us the gift of someone to hear their stories. The symbiosis is an achingly beautiful one if we let ourselves think about it. There is the obvious danger of insularity and the possibility of groups pushing themselves toward dangerous territory both for the members themselves and those around them. That means we must take care; whatever tribe we choose is not the only one, and if we draw an uncrossable line between us and them we do everyone a great disservice. After all, when you strip away the unessential stuff, there is no “us” and “them.” There is only us.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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