What the “elephant whisperer” teaches us about listening
When Lawrence Anthony died, elephants he had rescued and released years ago, showed up to mourn at his graveside.
Here’s what his wife wrote:
“Tonight at Thula Thula, the whole herd arrived at the main house home to Lawrence and I. We had not seen them here for a very long time. Extraordinary proof of animal sensitivity and awareness that only a few humans can perceive. And Lawrence was one of them. Thank you for your wonderful messages. Lawrence’s legacy will be with us forever at Thula Thula.”
They stayed for two days and two nights and then left. Some share this story as proof that animals mourn. But anyone who has had animals knows this already. There is a bigger question.
“How did they know he had died?” Sister Norma Rocklage from Marian University asked the audience of which I was a member at Ball State’s Cohen Peace Conference.
She said scientists can’t explain it.
Lawrence reluctantly welcomed nine elephants onto his 5,000 acre reserve in South Africa in 1999 after he got a call that they were troublesome and would be shot if he didn’t take them in.
Sister Norma told us the elephants weren’t very happy to have their movement restricted, but Lawrence listened to them every day.
“He was gradually able to win the elephants’ trust,” The New York Times reported in Lawrence’s obituary. “He . . . came to communicate with the elephants and to appreciate the way they communicated with one another.”
He wrote about the experience in the, “The Elephant Whisperer: My Life With the Herd in the African Wild,” which was published in 2009.
Sister Norma had a theory that Lawrence listened to them so much they became part of him and he became a part of them. She encouraged us to listen to other so intently they become part of us.
Sister Norma hinted that something beyond science, something metaphysical, happens when we listen to one another.
The more I do this work and the work with The Facing Project, the more people I’ve listened to. I’ve listened to hundreds of people, maybe even more than a thousand. In the past I’ve described carrying the weight of their stories, as if each story were a chain hung around my neck, some weighing more than others. There is weight to their stories, but the analogy made them out to be too much of a burden. They are more than that. They are gifts that have introduced me to new ways of seeing the world, knowledge, and wisdoms.
I’ve been listening to people’s stories for about 16 years now, and, before Sister Norma, I’ve never had someone so accurately put words to what I feel about the people I’ve listened to. Each of them has become a part of me.
As a reference librarian at a public library, I use a variety of levels of listening in my job. We were taught in library school that people often don’t ask the questions they need answered; they ask what they think can be answered even if it’s not really what they are looking for. It sometimes takes listening and asking and thinking and clarifying to figure out what it is the person needs to know. Sometimes this seems almost intrusive to the person asking the question, sometimes it is a relief to them that someone is really listening to them. Occasionally I find myself thinking about a person’s story for a long time afterward. I guess those are some of my more intensive listening experiences.