Participatory Journalism:
I Didn’t Even Know Her Name

by Janene Wolsey Baadsgaard

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    To be a good listener, I had to listen with my heart as well as my mind.

    I had always considered myself to be a “good listener” until that night. Being raised in the middle of a large family had forced me to do my share of listening just to keep the decibel level to a low roar in my home. But I didn’t realize, until that night, that listening required more of me than just being quiet. I didn’t realize, until that night, how desperately someone could need to be listened to.

    It had been a long day. In order for me to stay in school at Brigham Young University, I had to work part-time at night and go to school and study during the day. I was feeling tired and a little sorry for myself as I walked into the cafeteria late that night after a particularly hard day. The cafeteria was almost empty at that late hour.

    I picked up my dinner tray and turned around to find a table. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a girl sitting alone at one of the tables. She was staring at her food with her head bowed. A large backpack, books, and papers were scattered all over the table where she was sitting. By all appearances, she obviously wanted to be left alone. There were plenty of empty tables and I started to walk toward one of them to sit down.

    Suddenly I felt impressed to sit down next to the girl that I had noticed. Even though I was usually reserved, I found myself walking toward her table. I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her if I could sit next to her.

    She silently and reluctantly agreed as she began to move her books and papers off the table. Her appearance and posture and manner all told me that she wanted to be left alone, and I wondered why I was being so intrusive.

    Then we started to talk, slowly and cautiously at first. I felt strangely as if she were a lifetime friend of mine that I hadn’t seen for a long time, and I wanted to know all about her and what was happening to her. We both spoke freely, maybe even more freely than real friends because we had no images to maintain and no reputations to uphold.

    The young girl told me about some extremely depressing things that were happening in her life at that time. We talked for hours. Then the tears came.

    After several hours had gone by, she looked at me and said, “Tonight I was sitting here alone again, and I felt and really believed that I didn’t have a friend in this whole world. I couldn’t think of even one person that cared about me. I was sitting here thinking how I could do away with myself when you walked up and asked me if you could sit next to me. You’ll never know what you’ve done for me tonight. I’ve only known you for a few hours, but I know that you are my friend and that you care about me. There must still be a God that cares for me if you can care for me.”

    Later we embraced and walked away in separate directions. I turned, suddenly remembering that I didn’t even know her name. But she had disappeared into the night.

    As I walked toward home, I was feeling pretty good about myself knowing that I had heeded the impression to sit next to the girl. My problems seemed pretty small compared to hers.

    Then suddenly it hit me like a brick. All the times I had been similarly impressed to speak to someone, to spend time with someone, to call someone, or to say an encouraging word to someone, flashed before my mind. I remembered the excuses of not wanting to be too forward, or being too tired or worried about my own problems, or all the millions of reasons I had used for not heeding the promptings that I often received.

    I suddenly wondered how many of those people I had neglected had needs as desperate as those of the young girl that I had just talked to.

    Never before had I realized that to truly be a “good listener” I had to first learn to listen to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. Alone, without the Spirit, I was unable to discern the real needs of the people around me. With the Spirit, I could listen with my heart as well as my mind.

    I will probably never see that girl again, but I hope I will never again fail to listen to the impressions that the Spirit gives me.

    Illustrated by Richard Hull