Beware listening through stories

On February 3, 2017 my former partner and I shared parallel messages to let friends know what was happening in our personal lives:

This message let a wider circle of friends know what was happening in our internal worlds, but for most of my interactions with people, for months, when asked “how are you?” my answer was “good.” Sometimes I’d be more honest and say, “You know, I’m ok today. I have some stuff going on and I’m not at my best.” But the majority of time, the most people knew was that I was “good”, or “fine”. Just like them, I suspect, I gave the answer we all hope to hear, that all is well.

Here’s what I have learned: there is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them, or even briefly talking to them. It is irresponsible to think that we can.

There is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them.

As I hunkered down to make sure I kept it together during a significant time of transition in my life, and made my way through the world, I realized that no one else knows what is going on for me. A handful of people got close and gave me the gift of love and support, but when I went out to get groceries or went to work, I did not have a sign on me telling others what was happening. Even if I did have that sign — 21 year marriage just ended — they would still have no idea what it meant for me. All they have is their story.

It is not possible for others to know my story and what it means to me. And this tells me that when I see others on the street, or in a workshop or at work, it is not possible for me to know  their story and what it means to them. I can not know by looking, and I can not know by hearing a wee piece of story either. All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. All I have is my story.

It is not possible for me to know their story and what it means to them… All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. 

The tricky work of being in relationship with others is in recognizing that my reaction to what others do and say is my reaction. The stories I tell myself about them are my stories. To show up as my best self with them means I have to be aware of the stories I tell myself.

I have learned this because the stories others tell themselves about me are not my experience. Here are a few story pieces a handful of people have shared directly with me:

  • There must be a reason why! There must be someone to blame. Who made this happen?
  • You have lost so much! You are alone, without a partner. This is tragic.
  • You must be lonely.
  • You must not know what to feel, so I will tell you how you must be feeling.
  • You must not know what to do, so I will tell you what you need to know. Here’s how to handle money… here’s how to handle the separation agreement… here’s how to handle the kids.

These stories these dear people carry about my and my situation shape how they offer support to me. As they listen through their story, they act in ways that soothe them, not me. Despite good intentions, they are not supporting me at all. To me, what they say and do can feel disempowering; I sense a pre-supposition that I am broken, flawed, that something is now missing in my life that should be there, that I am incomplete. These stories that are not my own and have the power to deflate me — if I let them.

In contrast, a series of other stories have revealed themselves to me, that recognize and support my journey:

  • It took courage acknowledge the need to separate.
  • It took courage to enact the separation.
  • This is a time of transition, confusion and metamorphosis.
  • This is hard work and you are capable of handling this.
  • I am available to listen, with out judgement, and simply be with you.

This set of stories embodies an entirely different way of supporting me because they are listening for my story; they are not listening through their story. To support me, they put their story aside and make room for me. They trust that I am fully capable of living through a difficult time. When we spend time together, they give me space and room to figure out my next steps without inserting their agenda. If they are uncomfortable and upset about my new reality, they are able to put that aside and not let it run the show.

I have a new understanding about what it means to be heard and supported as we make our way through our lives. For me specifically it means this:

  1. I pay more attention to my own state and ability to be with others. If I am not able to listen for their story (and only able to listen through my story), I need to remove myself.
  2. I pay more attention to the quality of listening in others toward me. If they are only capable of listening through their story, and I am in need of support, I remove myself. If they are only capable of listening through their story and I am capable of listening for their story, I will stick around and be supportive.
  3. I choose to notice the stories I tell myself, check if they belong to me and if they are disempowering myself and/or others.


The city as a nest

Thinking of our cities as nests means we understand that our cities are what we build for ourselves.  Like other species we build our most immediate habitat: our shelter from the elements.  We also build structures that, once our survival needs are met, nurture our families and our well-being.  As a collective, we build larger and larger communities that address the needs of more than just a family.  Over the course of our evolution we build infrastructure to protect ourselves and our livelihoods (fortifications) and we build infrastructure to ensure order (transportation systems, government facilities).  We also build infrastructure to enjoy the opportunities that present themselves to enjoy life (recreation facilities, art galleries, sports arenas, etc.).  All of this is enabled because of our relationship with the resources that surround the beginnings of settlement and the subsequent work we have developed and expanded over decades, centuries and millenia.

Consider a simple definition of nest – a place or structure made or chosen:

  • in which to lay and incubate eggs or give birth to young
  • where a number of animals of the same species and their young occupying a common habitat: an ants’ nest
  • where an animal or insect breeds or shelters: an ants’ nest

The qualities of a nest are various.  A nest has some density.  Perhaps as a snug retreat, or tucked away all by itself, it is where a concentration of a species calls home.  A nest is also warm, safe and comfortable.  Whether a nest for birds, or a nest of shredded paper to hold a fragile bowl, a nest is a container that holds, protects and supports its contents.  A nest is pocket-like, usually a more or less circular structure.  It is a refuge from the elements.  It is home.

At a basic level, “nest” describes the habitat humans build for themselves very appropriately.  Our cities are made by us.  We build our homes and cities for ourselves as a species and with each generation.  More and more humans are choosing cities as their habitat.  In addition, cities provide heightened care for our young (specialized health care).

The qualities of a nest also coincide with those of a city.  People conglomerate in the city.  The city – at its best – provides shelter for more and more humans as more and more humans make cities their home.  At a minimum, we go to cities with the intention of making a better life, pursuing our work, looking for opportunities.  Geographical constraints aside, our cities take a circular form.  Cities are the habitat that holds, protects and supports the generation of new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  Cities cultivate innovation, the very thing we need to ensure the cities we build are able to hold, protect and support us, citizens of the city.  We make the nest – the city – in which we settle.

In exploring definitions of nest, I found that as soon as the word nest is associated with humans, a shadow side emerges: a place filled with undesirable people, activity or things; a place or situation that is full of bad people or activities; or a place that fosters something undesirable.  The examples: a nest of spies, a nest of thievery.  It certainly is the case that as more and more good things happen in the city, more bad things will also take place.  The city is not a perfect phenomenon.  Our work in cities must acknowledge and attend to the healthy and unhealthy aspects of our nest.  Which do we wish our city nests to nurture?

We build our nest cities to serve ourselves – to survive and thrive.  We build our nest cities to allow us to grow and develop – to emerge into what we need to be in order to survive and thrive.  We have a choice about whether to create cities that serve us poorly or well.  They are the place from which we leap to new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  They are the place from which we fly to new nests, as we reshape our cities and what happens in them now at an unprecedented rate.

Figure A

As we think about our nest cities and our relationship with them, we must consider the nested hierarchy of systems that make up the city (Figure A).  (Three posts have explored the nested hierarchy of city systems: Work at scale to serve the city, The development of cities is a survival skill, and Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.)  A city is full of similar things of different sizes that fit inside each other, where the smaller element fits in a lower position in a hierarchy: a nest of tables, organisms classified in a series of nested sets.  This involves a set of things in graduated sizes that fit together.  The notion of hierarchy offers yet another way of looking at the city and its systems.

There is a lot for a Nest City to hold.  It is simple and complex and it is ever changing.  Knowing this changes how we look at our cities.  It changes how we design our cities.  It changes the very process by which we create our cities.  Nest City requires us to host ourselves and our evolution well.   

Nested elements of a city: economic, social and physical

Resources that may be of interest