A&O note: Listening Angels

A&O note



In the tension between INDIVIDUATION and SOCIALIZATION, one phenomenon is the extent to which we internalize the voices of others.  This happens as nonconscious incidental learning or intensely consciousness close attention to the words of a caregiver, or mentor.   It can be tuned by intersubjectivity–phenomenology’s term for the finding of shared aspects of who we are. 

Diary note/reflection.  I have he common experience of passing a colleague in the hallways of work and asking “How are you doin’?”  – “Fine.” –   And then, for no obvious reason, I sometimes ask, “You sure?” – and my colleague can choose to go beyond the socially constructed custom.  I’m asking for a “check-in.”

Scholars sometimes speak of the “social construction of reality” – the construction of our “selves”–  and we do this first by observing others and then by interacting with them.   To become wholly ourselves  —to fully manifest our authentic selves—  we must have countless shared exchanges.

 Before the dead hand of habit has turned many of us into sleepwalkers, social automatons, we must rediscover the enriching joy of genuine connectedness with our cohabitants in the net of time and space we call our lives.  

And we begin by getting to know our neighbors.   We need to know about each other, what others see, think, feel.  How they are likely to act . . .

Someone once wrote that  Manhattan is a city of  “conversations overheard,” of  “people reading over your shoulder on the subway train.”

Well, I lived on that crowded island for several years and learned the meaning of that observation.  I learned that a few human habits that I thought were peculiarities of overcrowding were, in fact, givens of human nature.  And part of that given is a need to connect.  As in the John Prine song, “Hello in There, hello”   —I am a biologist and one of the things I’ve learned is that there a whole areas of the human brain dedicated to creating, interpreting, and appreciating social signals.   

I am also interested in the tensions (and convergences) of art and science and I have always been troubled by a famous aphorism by one of the fathers of physiology, Claude Bernard: “Art is I, Science is we”  – But I also believed with John Donne that “no man is an island” By that reasoning,  “I is we.”  

We can’t be alone because we have internalized those we love (as well as those we hate) — we are not necessarily like them but they affect us, they are there.  And the ones whose judgments we value I’ve nicknamed our …


“listening angels” 

This is what by Allen Ginsberg called Jack Kerouac. George Burns’ listening angel was Gracie, Herman Melville’s was Nathaniel Hawthorne*, Virginia Woolf’s was Katherine Mansfield.  We need to listen and we need to be listened to –even when we speak to ourselves, someplace there are listening angels  –and when you speak you imagine, “this is how Dad would have responded,” or “Mrs Goldman in the third grade,” or “that taxi-driver in Amarillo.”

In our small community we have all become each other’s listening angels  —We want to be understood but we also speak to understand.  A curious phenomena whereby we understand our own thoughts better after tring to express them to others.  And so I encourage and relish “checking in.”  I have a favorite line by the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado:  se hace camino al andar“we make the road by walking” –


This is the WISDOM of CHECKING IN.  We become connected — we may or may not laugh and cry together — BUT every check-in helps create the pathways we seek between our own – and each other’s hearts and minds.

* A letter from Herman Melville’s to his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorn dated November 17, 1851, says, “But, I felt pantheistic then-your heartbeat in my ribs and mine in ours, and both in God’s. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood my book”