I am a shameless eavesdropper. Perhaps that is not such an uncommon confession to make, as I believe the desire to know everything that is going on in someone else’s life is prevalent in our society. Still, for the sake of argument, I place that confession out on the table. This should come as no surprise either, but I will say it just the same: it is astounding what people will say in a conversation when they think no one else is listening.
I think I first began to realize this when I was a child sitting in on conversations between adults. There were times when it seemed I didn’t even need to pretend to hide my interest, and I have seen this play out in situations with my own children. I know that my oldest son, for example, is always listening, regardless of whether we think he is old enough to understand or care about our conversations.
Another interesting observation is that we seem to think our conversations end when we stop engaging in them. The truth, however, is that not only do our conversations continue without us, but in some cases, they also live on in the memories of those whom we’ve shared those talks with. I’ll give you an example. I was discussing a certain topic with an individual once, when he asked me if I had seen a certain movie. I remembered that conversation, and on another occasion, I managed to reproduce that conversation without him seeming to notice that we had already discussed that once before. I brought up the movie he had mentioned as if it were merely a random thought that had just crossed my mind, and we managed to reconnect on the same topic once again. Perhaps this is less like eavesdropping and more like simply paying attention, but either way, it is surprising how unconnected we sometimes feel that our conversations with others are.
When I look into the eyes of a longtime close friend or family member, I see the past blending together with the present, and in many ways, the past seems to shape the way that I see them in the present. I think that is one of the scandalous beauties of friendship; to have a friend is to be seen by someone not merely for who you are in the present moment, but for who you have been in the past. In a way, friendship is like the ultimate form of eavesdropping, only the invasion of privacy is expected and in many ways is freely given.
In speaking of literature, C.S. Lewis said this:
“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
Like friendship, reading is an ultimate form of eavesdropping, and I don’t believe that the two of them are unconnected. Rather, to read a story through the eyes of a character is not only to befriend them, but it is to inhabit their life, and as Lewis said, to transcend one’s own self. Reading a story through the eyes of an exposed character is like living a separate life in an alternate universe. The error in this practice, however, is the belief that we can read a story in such a way and come out of it unaffected. Not only are we affected by this vicarious living, but as Lewis argued, we are never more ourselves than when we live this way. In essence, he seems to be saying that we learn about ourselves the most when we learn about others.
In my work, I frequently have the opportunity to catch a glimpse into the lives of many people. For some, I get to walk through entire seasons of life with them, and in some cases, I’ve had the opportunity to see them walk into new seasons of life. In particular, two such individuals have stood out in my mind during recent weeks. One of them I only spoke to on two or three occasions, with only one of those occasions being in any great detail. As for the other, I’ve yet to ever speak with him, though I’ve learned a bit about him being in close proximity to him. I can’t tell you how many of their conversations I took part in without them ever knowing it, and in doing so, I was able to witness a casual friendship develop into something much more intimate. Their relationship came about merely from their connection to the place where they both found themselves from week to week, and so their conversations were often mundane and amounted to very little. But over time, I began to notice a change in the intricacy of their conversations. In the same way that it is astounding what people will say when they think no one else is listening, it is also astounding what strangers and acquaintances will share with each other if the proper situation arises. In the younger of the two, Kenneth, the one I never spoke to, I began to sense that these weekly conversations with the other man, Hank, were anything but trivial. They seemed to go beyond being merely casual for him, to the point that they seemed to be very therapeutic for him. As I found out, the feeling was mutual for Hank, and on one occasion, I overheard him say to Kenneth, “You know, I’m glad I met you. You’re a good friend.” Kenneth seemed to be as taken by the statement as I was, for I could hear the surprise in his voice when he responded, “Yeah, you are too.” It was a breakthrough moment for me, because I had just witnessed two grown men go from being complete strangers to being close enough where one felt comfortable enough to call the other a “good friend,” something I have scarcely said to even the closest of my lifelong companions.
Not long ago, Hank became sick, and I remember overhearing a very deep conversation about mortality between the two of them. What seemed at the time to be merely seasonal became final, and Hank succumbed to his illness. And in losing my connection to Hank, I also lost my connection to Kenneth. I haven’t seen him since Hank’s passing.
Here, I return to my statement that it is impossible to inhabit the lives of others without being affected in one’s own self. Even though I’ve never spoken a word to Kenneth, I now grieve for him, and such is the price of eavesdropping. In transcending ourselves to enter into the lives of others, we carry what we learn back with us, and in so doing, we learn things about ourselves in ways that we never could have otherwise. In trying on the joys and the griefs of others, we experience our own joys and griefs in new ways. In essence, we peek into the souls of others only to find that we have been peeking into our own souls all along.