Can you hear me? Can you see me?

Posted on October 31, 2009


“I’ve wanted to be a writer for 33 years. Now my dreams are coming true!”

Deb, a beautiful, eccentric lady that has depended on the service system for people with disabilities most of her life, has finally found a voice. Or wait! She has had a voice through writing and advocating for her passion for 33 years! She has finally found an ear. Traci listens to her. Traci hears her. Now they are in a writers group for local authors at a local church. Traci said to me the other day, “You know, I don’t think the group has a clue where we are from and even that Deb has a disability. She is just beautiful, eccentric Deb with her hair full of stunningly bright colors and an outstanding passion for stories; especially scary ones about sharks.

Can you hear me? Can you see me?

Richard, a man I met on the streets of downtown Grand Rapids, had an emptiness in his eyes that I could no longer turn away from. In spite of the impulse to look away, I looked at him. Through his surprise, we started a conversation. Four sentences into the conversation, his eyes went blank, the light of connection disappeared, and he walked away mid sentence. I kept trying, every week. Four sentences turned into eight, then twelve, then 15-20 minutes. Drugs had taken the light in his soul, but it was coming back. He had disappeared, voicelessly wandering the streets in search . . . of nothing. He didn’t know what he was looking for except that this life didn’t hold it. He was biding time, wondering, wandering, lost in a sea of people. Six months later, rehabilitation had given him the ability to stop his habit, but he needed an opportunity. He needed a home. Society said, “Sorry, opportunities are not available if you do not exist, if you are invisible, if you have no voice.” He moved in with myself and five other college buddies of mine. He got a paper route . . . and kept it for a year. Then he got a job at a factory and got a place of his own. Now he is married with kids. He has been married for 25 years . . . my marriage lasted four years . . .

Can you hear me? Can you see me?

Ubuntu is a South African word that speaks to the very essence of being human. What is this human thing? What is the core of our existence? Who are we and why are we here?

Rev. Desmond Tutu is fond of quoting the word, he says: “Ubuntu is to say my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. A person is a person through other persons. I am human because I belong. I partipate, I share. I am available, open and affirming of others. A person with Ubuntu does not feel threatened that others are able, are good, they are self assured knowing that they belong in a greater whole”

Out of the spirit of Ubuntu comes a simple but powerful greeting:

“‘Sawubona’ literally means ‘I see you’. In the Zulu community, if you just walk past someone without greeting them properly, regardless of whether you know them or not, it is considered very offensive because what you are actually communicating to them is that they do not exist in your eyes, or that they don’t matter enough to bother greeting them. So in the Zulu community, you can count on always being greeted.

“The response ‘Ngikhona’ means ‘I am here’ , ‘I am validated’, ‘I matter’.

It reminds me of a quote that I love by Philip Toshio Sudo, ‘Speak directly from your heart to the heart of your listener, as if passing the flame of a candle.’”

(Sawubona – What Can We Learn? By Brian Watts

Ron is an ordinary guy, cruising along in life, quite middle class, quite nomal, quite successful (in a non-profit sort of way), quite a meaningful career, quite the American dream. Oops, what happened? In the spring of 2008, divorce . . . finalized; job . . . downsized; house . . . foreclosed; depression . . .  relentless. Invisible? . . . totally. Voiceless? . . . nobody could hear such depth of pain. Everybody wanted to hear him say “Fine”, when asked “How are you?”  That’s all they wanted to hear. It is uncomfortable to listen deeply because then you have to do something with the pain you are hearing. All you can do is take it into your heart, shut up, and feel it with the other person. One by one, he found friends that were willing to do this; Maggie, Tonya, Kay, Diane, Chris, Shawn. He felt seen; little by little. He felt heard; little by little. Life started to have meaning again. They may not fully see it, but he hopes they hear this: his friends kept him alive . . . by hearing and seeing him.

Can you hear me? Can you see me?

Jeff is a young, light-hearted, quick-witted man that happens to be deaf. He received services in a system that could not speak his language, sign language. He was kicked out of one program because he “acted out” his frustration. He built a track record of violence toward care givers because of his frustration of not being heard. In the program he is in now, he kept signing this one particular sign. Frustration was building . . . again. Tonya listened. Tonya saw Jeff. Tonya wanted to hear him more, so she began studying sign language. Tonya found out that the sign he kept using meant “stupid”. When staff could not hear him, he kept saying, “stupid”. Seems appropriate to me. When Tonya acknowledged that she heard him and believed him, understood him, he opened up. He could breathe. He was heard. She brought him to “deaf night” at Rivertown Crossings Mall, a gathering of other people that are deaf. Jeff lit up. THEY could hear him too!!! He didn’t want to leave. Because of Tonya, we SEE Jeff, we HEAR Jeff. And what a delight he is.

Can you hear me? Can you see me?

The essence of humanity is human connection:

Clearing the clutter to SEE the invisible in a world of neon lights, glitz, and bling.

Silencing the clamor to HEAR the quiet voices in a world so full of noise.

Halting the frenzy to SEE, and HEAR . . . myself.

This is the essence of being human: Ubuntu

In the stories, Ron is me. Richard is my friend of 25 years ago that I will never forget. Jeff and Deb are participants in an initiative at Hope Network that we call Make a Difference. We are learning from each other. We are learning to SEE each other. We are learning to HEAR each other at a deeper level than ever before. Leadership at Hope Network is SEEING and HEARING front line staff. The whole organization is SEEING and HEARING program participants like never before. Our services are becoming human. It is not just about tasks, it is about relationships and friendships, interests and dreams. It is about dreams coming true. Most of all, it is about finding meaning in life.

“I used to just walk by things and just keep going. Now I stop and notice; both the good AND the bad.” (Walt, a Hope Network staff of 30 years)

“Everybody is half-dead. Everybody avoids everybody, all over the place, in most situations, most all the time. I know; I’m one of those ‘everybodys.’ And, to me, it’s terrible. And so all I’m trying to do, all the time, is just open people up so they…let themselves be open to somebody else. That is all. That’s it.” (Nina Simone, singer / song-writer)

Sawubona, I see you