Three moons

Three moons

There is much to consider in “The Three-Body Problem,” the first in a trilogy by Chinese science fiction novelist Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu). Much of it – physics, astronomy, technology – is beyond my understanding, but the core of the story is epic and stark: A young woman sees her scientist father beaten to death in the Cultural Revolution and abandons faith in humankind. She, too, is a gifted scientist, gets involved in a top-secret lab project and eventually makes contact with extraterrestial intelligence, seeking their help in saving people from themselves. The events that unfold over the next 50 years hold a harrowing echo to contemporary times.

Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu

But my attachment to this sentence –  “Everyone likes to reminisce, but no one wants to listen, and everyone feels annoyed when someone else tells a story.” – comes from the echo it holds on a more immediate level, and both the challenge and opportunity that offers to those of us who believe that journalism is a public and human service.

The scientist is an old woman in that passage, and finally decides to tell her secrets to a young researcher. He fears it will cause her further trouble, and tries to discourage her. But she persists: “Let’s just imagine that I’m looking for someone to hear me talk.” The young man suggests she spend time at the senior center if she’s lonely. She shrugs him off with her pointed statement: Most people are absorbed in their own stories and don’t want to listen to others.

Journalists need to take constant care with how we approach people, the questions we ask, the commitments we make. We risk exploitation, especially when we parachute into sensitive situations and probe for stories on deadline – and there is always a deadline – and especially when we dare to tell intimate stories of personal experience and emotion.

But the work we do to tell such stories also can be a powerful gift – to the larger society that can learn from those stories, and to the individual who has lived them. Because if we do this work as well as we can – with purpose, professionalism and compassion – what we have to do is listen. We give another person our full, sincere attention, and honor the story they have to tell. One of the underlying lessons of “The Three-Body Problem,” I think, spoke to the isolation of people who aren’t heard, and the dangers to the future if we fail to listen.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem

Perhaps it is the wonder of the first morning of a new year, but as I was considering this, “The Takeaway” was on my public radio station. Host Tanzina Vega was revisiting a few interviews from the past year, built around the notion of hope. How, in these conflicted times, do people hold onto hope, and why? One of the people she interviewed was feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem. (Coincidentally – or perhaps not? – I’m in the middle of Steinem’s autobiography, “My Life on the Road.”) I heard the full interview when it first aired in September. Both then and now I was struck by the same moment, when Steinem is asked how people can go forward with optimism in the face of discouragement. She says it starts simply, by noticing the person in front of us and listening: “Listening is maybe the most revolutionary thing we can possible do.”

Let the revolution begin!

 

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