Global Service Scholar: Helay Liang
Country: South Africa

I am a listener. I make an effort to listen to people whenever I can. I have a constant urge to lend an ear because people are not always heard. There are internal and external barriers that prevent people from openly expressing their thoughts, feelings, and dreams. I do my best to try to change that.

While I was in South Africa, I carried these values with me wherever I went. Whether I was spending time with my cohort or working at my internship site, I was keen on creating spaces where people felt heard. I wanted people to feel comfortable in telling their stories. 

What I did not expect to experience was an enormous wave of pain and heartache while I was listening. The stories I heard were so raw and unfiltered that they left my body tingling and my heart numb. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed by the emotions that were triggered in me. I did not know how to react or take in what people were sharing.

I heard stories about a father stealing everything from his son and wife, abandoning them to fend for themselves on the streets; a boy who was sent to the emergency room because he was almost beaten to death for being gay; and a mother who was raped, desperately fighting to get her two daughters out of their neighborhood so that neither of them would have to experience what she did.

These stories were heavy. Many of them did not have a happy ending at the time they were told. Some days I was scared to listen to another story because of the pain I would feel afterward. I was trying to protect my heart from falling apart – it was cracking faster than I could glue it back together. And, unfortunately, I was preventing myself from growing as a listener.

How could I expect myself to be a genuine listener if I filtered out the stories that caused me to feel pain, sorrow, and suffering? How could I expect people to share their stories if I was not comfortable with hearing them? I felt like a fraud. I prided myself in being a listener, yet I was being selective with what I wanted to listen to and fearful of what people would say. I realized that I was afraid to pop the bubble I had been in for far too long. Once I figured this out, I started allowing the emotions I felt to flow through me, instead of trying to ward them off. I was learning to take my shoes off and be brave enough to walk in someone else’s.

While the stories were still painful to hear, I began seeing purpose behind the pain. There was a reason why these stories were difficult to listen to: I was sharing the pain along with the person telling me the story. They were showing me their scars and allowing me to visit their past. I was connecting with them on a deeper level and beginning to open eyes to the realities that South African people faced. Pain became a new way for me to empathize.

Try not to limit yourself to stories that end on a positive note with the main character overcoming adversity. Sometimes the most rewarding stories to listen to end with the main character still in the process of conquering their hurdles and coping with pain. Do not be afraid to hear these stories. Your heart is a lot stronger than you might think. Take a risk, open your heart, and let the pain in. Choose to listen to people’s stories because you want them to matter and feel visible. I believe that this is one way we can help reinforce the strength and power people see in their stories and in themselves.