Walking to Listen – Andrew Forsthoefel
“Life is fast, and I’ve found it’s easy to confuse the miraculous for the mundane, so I’m slowing down, way down, in order to give my full presence to the extraordinary that infuses each moment and resides in every one of us.”
At 23, Andrew Forsthoefel walked out the back door of his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, with a 50-pound backpack, an audio recorder, his copies of Whitman and Rilke, and a sign that read “Walking to Listen.” In 2011 he had just graduated from Middlebury College and was ready to begin his adult life, but he didn’t know how. So he decided he’d walk. And listen. It would be a cross-country quest for guidance, and everyone he met would be his guide.
He headed south into Delaware and through the deep South, west to the Pacific Ocean.
He decided to ask those he met: If you were able, what advice would you give your 23-year-old self, knowing what you know now? His one rule on the road was this: “don’t accept rides.”
Whomever he met and whatever stories and advice they gave him over the next 4,000 miles filled about 85 hours worth of digital recording. It was a year of radical vulnerability and remarkable connection, with people across the vast and varied spectrum of American humanity.
He used five pairs of shoes, he faced an Appalachian winter and a Mojave summer. He met beasts inside: fear, loneliness, doubt. But he also encountered incredible kindness from strangers of all different kinds. Thousands shared their stories with him, sometimes confiding their prejudices, too. Often he didn’t know how to respond. How to find unity in diversity? How to stay connected, even as fear works to tear us apart? He listened for answers to these questions, and to the existential questions every human must face, and began to find that the answer might be in listening itself.
After his year-long walk across America, Andrew began telling the stories from his transformative journey. He co-produced a radio documentary ‘Hit the Road’ about this project that was featured on ‘This American Life,’ and his book ‘Walking to Listen’ goes deeper into the stories and explores the practice and philosophy of walking to listen.
Andrew now writes and speaks about the discipline of listening and its role in the work of reconciliation, transformational resistance, and peace-making at the personal and collective levels. He is an itinerant teacher, offering walks and workshops that train participants in the work of becoming a trustworthy listener. His work is a contribution to the collective project of learning how to be alive together with love, by listening—united by our diversity, empowered by sharing the unavoidable vulnerability of being human, and freed by opening up to ourselves and one another.
Many youths come of age through some odyssey of self-discovery; Andrew Forsthoefel did it by walking.
“I try to take what I’ve learned about listening and connection from my walk,” he said. “I try to deepen our understanding of what listening is and what it is to be a trustworthy listener. I think — for whatever reason, it has become an endangered discipline: ‘Why don’t I listen’ is the question to explore,” said Andrew. “If we expect to evolve and heal together, we have to start listening to ourselves — to our own hearts — and to each other. Or continue to live in violence and apathy.”
“…In some ways, each telling is a first. The more I tell it, the more I learn about it. One of the gifts for me, of telling the story, is I get to understand it more and more. It isn’t just about understanding what happened to me on the road, but about bringing some of the tools I’ve learned from the people I met. …The whole point was to recognize that every single individual has an extraordinary story worth listening to. Each person had something to teach.”
One man told him: “All you’re doing is reading a book — just with your feet.”
At one junction in Alabama, a white woman warned him not to go through a predominately black community that had a tough reputation. Andrew said he wished the people who warned him “could experience what I did. These people they warned me about were the people who took me in and fed me,” he said in one of his audio programs.
When asked if he was ever afraid of people he met along the way, he answered: “Oh yeah.”
“In some ways, one of the biggest teachings was to see the many, many ways my mind makes assumptions about everybody. I wanted to challenge those assumptions by walking up to everyone and asking who they were. But constantly, my mind was challenging me.”
Andrew said he doesn’t know how many people he talked to on that trip — “hundreds, maybe thousands,” he said. But the trip was a “great harvest” of sharing truths. He recalled an old man in Alabama talking to him about getting old and about losing his brothers and sisters. “I asked him, ‘How do you survive?’ and he said: ‘You grieve. You will know. You’ve got lots of grieving to do.’”
“The medicine in that is the realization that there’s something right in that. Grieving is not something I should avoid. The gift of receiving that as a young person, and believing that, is that now I won’t exert a lot of energy in trying to avoid (grief). Seeing this old man so calmly and wisely living within that grief — it invited me into the truth of my life.”