A Story Worth Hearing

Last June I visited Vrindavan, India, known as the City of Widows. By coming to this holy city, widows find refuge in exchange for giving their lives in worship to the gods and begging for the charitable gifts of passers by. The women I met are considered more “fortunate” than the city’s other widows. They have a place to sleep and are provided a daily meal in an ashram located near the temple. (An ashram is a place where a person or a group of people go to live separately from the rest of society and practice the Hindu religion.) 

Like many elderly who are deprived of a healthy social outlet, the women talked freely once I invited them to share their story. The stories they told, however, were of being abused at home, being abandoned by their children, losing their home and financial resources through manipulation, suffering associated with poor health, and feelings of loneliness. The stories were tragic and emotive and we were all greatly affected by what we heard.  

Last week, I returned to Vrindavan and visited many of the same widows I met six months earlier. I sat with the women and, in an effort to capture their life story, I asked questions regarding their childhood, marriage, and child-rearing years. I wanted them to talk about their life before they became widows—before they were abandoned to this place. But that is not the story they wanted to tell. Instead, they spoke again about the events that led to their present situation. We listened as they cried and bemoaned the circumstances of their lives.

“The stories we heard today are the same as before,” was the concluding comment of our Indian translator that day.  In a world where our senses are continually roused by dramatic and sensational news reports or stories, it takes little time for us to become desensitized to the suffering of the other.  Saying, “we heard those stories before” is not just a matter of fact statement, but rather a reflection of the impatience we have with the constant presence of suffering. It is easy to be moved to compassion and even action when our senses are provoked with narratives that stimulate our emotions. On our first trip to the City of Widows, the stories the widows told certainly had that effect. On the return visit, though, the stories didn’t change. The women were in the same place, in the same condition, and talked about the same things. There were no new revelations, just poor widows recounting their narrative of abuse and hardship.

We live in a culture where the ‘Breaking News’ our ears are tuned to quickly becomes ‘old news’ once the sensational details are disclosed. We change the channel on the story where hundreds of fleeing immigrants died at sea because we already heard about it on the 5 o’clock news. Too often, the suffering of others holds our attention only as long as the story remains interesting. Once those stories become old news, the cries of the suffering fade to a dull drone.  But as children of God, who should love others as we love ourselves, we have to do the work of listening to those who have been silenced because of gender, caste, or widowhood.  We have to transcend our culture and not be the kind of people who spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Widows in India have a story to tell and we have a responsibility to listen, patiently.

Practically speaking, as an interviewer and researcher, my follow-up visit to the widows of Vrindavan offered little benefit to capturing the life stories told by India’s most vulnerable population. But as an ethnographer, interested in these women being understood through the narratives they tell, the repetition of stories of betrayal by family and society is ‘their’ story--a story worth hearing.  When we minimize a person’s suffering because we’ve grown tired of listening, we invalidate the sufferer and their story.  Conversely, focused and tireless listening brings dignity to the one who shares their life story. With humility, widowed women allowed us to see inside their world by telling their story. We listen so that their story is not forgotten.  We listen so we can teach others how gender discrimination can lead to neglecting the very people that God commands that we take care of. We listen because we love.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:27