I started having fantasies about putting my therapy chair on the sidewalk in 2014. Our country was in crisis: Gun violence was rampant. We were mean. We spent more time staring at our phones than making eye contact with other human beings. We were lonely. We were in shock. We ached for connection but were often told to sit alone on a meditation cushion or pose in a yoga class because that was better than needing people.
What the heck was going on? Offering “free listening” on public sidewalks seemed a compelling way to find out. It became an unrelenting call I had to answer.
Today, that idea has become a non-profit called Sidewalk Talk that has trained 1,000 volunteers across 29 cities and 10 countries to sit on sidewalks every week and offer “free listening” to anyone, about anything. We have listened to nearly 10,000 people, many of whom have now joined our movement of belonging and connection. When needed, we refer people to low-fee or crisis mental health services.
Sidewalk Talk is simple, yet profound–and necessary, if you consider the trends:
1 in 5 Americans suffers from an anxiety or depression.
The 2017 World Happiness Report says America is one of the least happy developed nations.
Unhealthy individualism and the mantra “I don’t need anyone” are still badges of honor.
Tech use causes us to miss out on the subtleties of our human interactions, leaving us lonelier.
Productivity and competition are prized above cultivating loyal bonds with each other.
In both our real and digital neighborhoods, we live surrounded by people who look and think like us. Living our lives in diversity deserts is creating a lack of empathy. The more time we spend with folks who look and think just like us, the meaner we become toward people who are different. We dehumanize and assault others with words and fists…and sometimes guns.
By listening in public spaces to anyone about anything, Sidewalk Talk volunteers are embracing people who differ from us and modelling connection for passersby. Volunteers are often surprised, not by the impact we have on our community, but by the value our listening practice adds to our own quality of life. We are happier, less lonely, and more inclusive. And we are better partners, friends, parents and co-workers.
I remember being in sticky, hot Birmingham, Alabama, with twenty volunteers, sitting on the sidewalk for our listening bus tour after the last election. An older gentleman had been observing us for some time. He approached me and asked me what we were doing. It was clear from his ball cap that we didn’t share the same political views. But we didn’t talk about politics. His eyes got misty as he told me his wife of 30 years had just left him. He shared how guilty and alone he felt. He was in a great church congregation but it didn’t feel OK to share his heartache there. He was alone and trying to “do it by himself.” Except now he wasn’t. He was telling me. He thanked me and gave me a hug. Perhaps he went on his way feeling a little lighter and kinder. Perhaps he would risk sharing that Sunday at church and get the support his heart clearly needed.
But often our need for one another is treated as grotesque and needy. That way of thinking is a long-standing historical and psychological wound that is costing us dearly. We are herd animals who need connection. Loneliness actually makes us physically ill, and we may live shorter lives as a result.
Calming the mind through mindfulness practice is in vogue, but we need to take that practice out into real life to enrich our relationships. Sidewalk Talk is designed to be a place to practice engaged mindfulness, prayer, or whatever label you want to give your contemplative practice. But we must understand that we can’t meditate, pray or “yoga pose” away our need for human connection.
Sidewalk Talk-style listening is a vehicle for repairing our long-held wound of unhealthy individualism and for changing the landscape of the empathy deserts in which we live. When we listen, we hear one another into existence. We humanize each other again and develop a loyal desire to do right by one another. What would the world look like if we all walked around this earth with a sense of responsibility for one another’s well-being? Sidewalk Talk is on a mission to find out—one connection at a time.
“Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among U.S. Adults.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mental-illness-ami-among-us-adults.shtml.
“World Happiness Report 2017.” World Happiness Report, UN and SDSN, worldhappiness.report/ed/2017/.