I met Tatay Loreto one gloomy afternoon while I was in the midst of what people referred to as the tent city, a heartbreaking vestige of what was left of the area after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) ravaged the province of Leyte in November 2013.
While I was trying to figure out which tent to visit next out of thousands, he suddenly called my attention. "Sir, are you from the United Nations?" he asked.
"No, sir, I am not. But I'm here to gather stories. How may I help you?"
He requested me to come closer to him, and then I listened.
‘Brave but stubborn’
Tatay Loreto, a doting father in his 60s, was among the brave but stubborn ones who did not join the typhoon evacuation efforts the night before. Why? Just so he could guard his house by the sea on that fateful day of November 8th.
He stayed behind together with some fishermen, a British pharmacist and his wife, a female seaside restaurant owner named Yolanda, a vacationing young boy and his mother, fathers and their wives who once vowed that only death could tear them apart, and their teenage sons and daughters who left the evacuation centers and promised their parents that they would be back.
All of them thought that 5-meter-high waves only happen in the movies. They thought that it was just another typhoon, and that in a few hours this apocalyptic deluge would soon pass. They thought they were strong swimmers.
These people, together with their dreams, did not survive. Only Tatay Loreto did.
He shared how he clung on to an electrical cord, which was almost the same level as the roof of the town’s tallest building.
He fought and fought and fought until a couple of hours later, he found himself moved kilometers away. Dazed and wounded, he searched for his loved ones in a place of what could be considered as their own version of Sodom and Gomorrah.
He eventually found them. They cried and hugged.
He told me, "Sir, I need a boat with an engine to make a living. Or even just a fish net."
"Ah, ok, sir, let me just jot that down. But I cannot promise anything,” I replied.
"Oh, do not worry. Whatever help you can give, sir, I will accept," he said.
"Anything else that I can do for you, sir?" I asked.
"Just do not forget me," he whispered.
And after he said that momentous statement, he gave me a pack of biscuits and a bottle of energy drink – kindness that he pulled out of his own emptiness.
It was as if he was telling me to remain energetic so I could keep on going because in those other tents are dignified people who are still waiting to be listened to, whose stories also deserve to be told.
We then hugged as if it was all that mattered.
I surely did not forget Tatay Loreto and the 15 more people I met that day.
Now that I think about them, I hope that I was able to give them a temporary oasis of peace at the very least despite being in a place where destruction and chaos seemed to stretch endlessly.
Most importantly, their simple yet heartfelt stories of loss and love often remind me of my “why’s” as a development worker and a human being, of how I need not really be the bravest, brightest and the best person out there just to make a "ripple," and of how listening to people with empathy can potentially light up a million universes.
Indeed, listening reaffirms the existence of another life and makes people feel that they are not forgotten.
This article will not propose a groundbreaking solution to eradicate global hunger by 50% or to solve any form of global crisis. I wrote this essay to emphasize the fundamental importance of empathic listening, a skill that can be developed and mastered not only by the valedictorians, topnotchers, innovators, leaders, policymakers, CEOs and other people that this society labels as the crème de la crème.
Listening somehow equalizes the playing field because truthfully, we can all listen. Empathic listeners are not superhero geniuses; they are simply us.
After a few years of working in the development sector, I realized that one of the most comforting moments a disaster survivor or a marginalized rural poor farmer can ever experience is to be genuinely listened to.
Crisis recovery often takes a long time to materialize, so being listened to somehow gives the affected people this message: "The future might look bleak for now, but we will soon rise." The people whom I have met and listened to in both my personal and professional journeys often told their most heartfelt stories to me, and it is through their stories that I found a way to connect my humanity with their humanity.
I eventually realized that listening can somehow pacify a displaced mother's troubled heart and restless soul, can light up the imagination of a child trafficking survivor, can make a depressed individual feel that he or she matters, can infuse hope and a sense of companionship in a world riddled with conflict, and can give a surge of empowerment for people to become better human beings.
May our ability to care for others by listening not get a lost in a sea of apathy and policy conundrums.
Hearing stories of others may just happen as a brief and fleeting moment in our lives, something that can occur while we are seated in a bus, waiting for someone at the airport, or looking at the setting sun from a balcony. However, a lot of us actually live for small moments like this – little triumphs that can deliver life-changing effects.
The human person is, after all, still at the center of all the development issues that we face, and it is by listening that we might finally get to hear the stories and answers that we have been longing for.