Sometimes I need help talking less and listening more, so the laryngitis could be a good thing. Anyway, the thought boosts the morale that sags on my drive to work. When I arrive, my coworkers do not recognize my voice when I speak to them from behind, with my alto turned into a hoarse bass. Throughout the day, I am quieter than usual.
“Listening is a hugely powerful form of attention,” says Krista Tippett, who interviews people about the meaning of life on public radio. Twice this weekend, I lie on the floor with a person and their large, sweet dog, who dies as my fingers push a syringe plunger. One dog afloat in fluid that fills his chest and abdomen, but wagging his tail. The other dog paralyzed from the neck down. Their eyes are the same, showing only concern for their sobbing people.
I place my palms on the dog’s quiet thighs, unable to leave, unable to even whisper. I press my stethoscope to his ribs to hear the silence. In this moment, listening does not feel powerful, but I am the one with the stethoscope, not with my heart gone still on the floor. This is what power means. In vet school, the top cardiologist told us the most important part of the stethoscope is between the earpieces. Our ears, our minds. Now I know that my heart lives there too.
The day is long and full of broken dogs and cats. I leave in darkness. To stay awake and focused while driving, I bring a hunk of crusty French baguette leftover from someone’s lunch. I take small bites and chew slowly, so it lasts the whole way home. The way it weirdly lingers between my teeth longer than any bite of anything reminds me of communion from years ago. I involuntarily think, “This is my body, broken.” And I get weepy.
“Compassion,” Krista Tippett says, “is not necessarily about agreeing with somebody else, and it’s not necessarily about liking them. It is making a choice to honor their humanity.”
It’s a complicated world, though, and I don’t know how to honor humanity beyond each person I meet, each dog on the floor. And I feel, achingly, that we need big, wide compassion these days. I chew on things to stay woke, in the sense of maintaining an awareness of the world around us, to keep informed of things that are changing and things that refuse to change.
Despite the aching, I will pay attention. When my voice is ragged, when I hold power, I will try to listen. But I will also stay awake, so that I will be ready to speak.