AAS May 25, 2014 Listening Improves Humanity


Palaima: Better listening improves humanity

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, May 24, 2014
Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday May 25, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

A few years ago, several veteran Austin guitar-playing musician friends — John Inmon, Derek O’Brien, Denny Freeman, Richard Jessee — took time to talk with my son about what their lives devoted to playing music were like, where their inspiration and passion for music came from, what difficulties they faced and still face.

What stays with me was how well these masters of soul-inspiring guitar sounds listened to what a 16-year-old fledgling musician had to say.

True attentive listening is a vanishing skill and underdeveloped talent. We all want to be heard. Yet it is the capacity to hear sympathetically that makes us truly human. The words we share in our native languages, the specific meanings we give words within our families and social groups, the feeling of outsiderness we have when we cannot understand what others are saying, all define who we are in our connections with or disconnections from other human beings.

Inmon posed a conundrum that applies not just to playing music, but to all other forms of human communication. He said: “When you are playing the guitar you are just sending out vibrations that travel through the air. They don’t mean anything until they reach the ears of the people who are listening. Figure out how to get what the song means to you across to your audience.”

What a wonderful concept. Applied to nonmusical communication, it asks that we do one simple thing: listen before or while we speak so that we can best express what we mean to others.

How is listening, especially John’s kind of pre-listening or imaginative listening to what others will be hearing, important? Without it, we lose contact with others and with ourselves, we become less able to help others and ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Freud Museum in Vienna and stood in front of the famous couch upon which Freud’s patients reclined and the famous chair where Freud sat, behind his patients. What he was practicing was called “the talking cure,” but it depended on patients knowing that a sympathetic, if invisible, listener was taking in what they were saying.

Psychoanalysis is now a multi-faceted science, but the art of sympathetic listening was known to Homer. Achilles, when in his deepest suffering from the public insult to his core self as a dedicated field commander, talks at length to his mother, Thetis. She listens with maternal care. Later when his closest comrade Patroclus is killed, Achilles unburdens himself to Thetis again about his sorrow and his guilt. He later speaks with Priam, king of Troy, who appeals to Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles had killed. Achilles in his anger and grief had tried to mutilate Hector’s corpse. Listening to Priam’s words, Achilles remembers his own father and becomes fully human once more.

Walt Whitman in his famous commentary on the abysmal medical care given the wounded well into our Civil War, “The Great Army of the Sick,” cites the case of J.A.H., “a young man from Plymouth Country, Massachusetts,” “prostrated by diarrhea and vomiting” and virtually catatonic because “no one spoke to him” or did so “with perfect indifference” or “heartless brutality.” Whitman “sat down by him without any fuss — talked a little — soon saw that it did him good — led him to talk a little himself.” By humanly listening, Whitman pulled J.A.H. from the brink of death from a despondency caused by nobody caring to listen.

Unfortunately, in our society the reward structures in many professions promote single-minded self-expression. A just-completed senior honors thesis at the University of Texas at Austin by Bethany Hamilton that Stephen Sonnenberg and I supervised looks at UT students who are military veterans. We need to listen to opinions like those Hamilton gathered from veterans. One was that veteran students would rather be at Austin Community College than at UT because the professors at ACC take time to listen when veteran students talk about their special needs.

This problem doesn’t apply only to veterans. UT has long had dauntingly high student to faculty ratios. And faculty members know that, except for award-winning performers in the classrooms, devoting time to research and publications is the one sure way to be among the chosen half of the faculty who now receive annual small merit raises.

The art of listening needs a public hearing, and we all need to lend our ears.

Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Palaima: For veterans, every day is Memorial Day

Palaima: For veterans, every day is Memorial Day

Austin American-Statesman http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/for-veterans-every-day-is-memorial-day/nX6zR/
Posted: 10:54 a.m. Thursday, May 30, 2013 PRINT May 31, 2103

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

Memorial Day is now behind us, but not for many soldiers and veterans of our country.

My friend Charles E. Patterson is now senior counsel with Morrison Foerster law firm in Los Angeles. His online biography tells us that he served “as an officer in the United States Marine Corps at various duty stations, including the Republic of Vietnam, 1966-1969.” What that matter-of-fact description and Chuck’s extensive legal résumé do not reveal is the memorial that he, like other veterans, carries in his heart to those who served alongside him.

Two fellow soldiers Patterson remembers vividly are Lance Cpl. Manuel Pina “Manny” Babbit and 1st Lt. Henry Marion Norman. Both served with Patterson among the Marines besieged for 77 hellish days at Khe Sanh in 1968.

Norman died at Khe Sanh on March 30, 1968, at age 28, “due to a mortar, rocket, or artillery incident.” Manny Babbitt died on May 4, 1999, one day after his 50th birthday. He was executed by the state of California by lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison.

During the long siege at Khe Sanh, Babbitt received a head wound from rocket shrapnel. He was under frequent artillery fire from the enemy. He felt the thunderous force of 100,000 tons of bombs dropped by the U.S. Air Force around the Marine base. He later fought in five other major campaigns in Vietnam.

Babbitt grew up in an environment of poverty and physical abuse. He was 17 when he quit school in the seventh grade. When he came back from Vietnam, he would have been a poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder, only at that time there were no posters for PTSD. Its severity and prevalence among veterans were not yet recognized.

Still, Babbitt was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, dissociative reactions and periods of amnesia. He became a street person, “the town crazy.” On a foggy night in December 1980, Babbitt killed a 78-year-old woman in whose house he had sought shelter. Patterson believes Babbitt acted in a flashback, thinking he was under siege.

At Babbit’s trial in 1982, according to a New York Times report, his court-appointed lawyer “never called witnesses who had served with Mr. Babbitt in Vietnam, never documented his family history of mental illness, an aggravating factor in the post-traumatic stress, and never sought Mr. Babbitt’s Vietnam medical records.” The lawyer later admitted that he ”failed completely in the death penalty phase” of the trial. On May 14, 1982, the jury imposed the penalty of death on Manny Babbitt.

In March 1998, Babbitt, on death row, received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered at Khe Sanh. Four fellow veterans of the siege stood by. Patterson filed the forms that made sure Babbitt received the medal he had earned in service of his country. Patterson and his firm also put in thousands of hours pro bono from 1997 to 1999 in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to have Babbitt’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

At the time, Patterson said, “Manny’s a Marine. He was in Khe Sanh. I know I could depend on him to do what he could to save my life. He should be able to depend on me to do the same thing. There’s that obligation.” He and Babbitt both had scars from exploding shrapnel.

Patterson expressed the deep injustice done to Babbitt in his legal writing. He expressed the injustice done to Norman in his poetic writing.

“Marion Henry Norman Khe Sanh, 1968”

They took your life
As if it belonged to them.
If only they had told me
They needed a life,
I would have given them mine.

I wonder
What they did with your life?
If they don’t need it now,
They’d give it back.

—Ca Lu, March 1968

I saw you dead
But never buried.

In my heart you’ve lived,
Laughing, smiling Hank.
I would keep you there forever,
In a memorial more perfect
Than hands could build.

Finding an end to my war
I can mourn you now.
And, in sadness, leave
This loving, painful,
Magic caretaking,
So I may live
At peace.

To celebrate your death,
To elevate your life,
And its conclusion,
Which was neither sweet,
Nor fitting, Duty’s harshest price
For which the consideration
Should have been honor.

—The World, 1983

For veterans, every day is Memorial Day.

Palaima is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin: tpalaima@austin.utexas.edu.

(Posted for Palaima by dygo)