Words of Wisdom

Urban Confessional is Listening to People For Free and It’s Changing the World

It doesn't cost a thing to be present and listen.

Ever been in a conversation where you feel like you’re talking and no one is really listening? Like they are busy formulating their witty comeback instead of actually paying attention to what is being said? Or maybe you’re having one of those days where you need to talk, be validated that what you are feeling is real. Active listening is a lost art in our crazy mixed up busy world and our relationships are suffering.

This guy, his name is Ben Mathes, felt it was time to do something about it and created Urban Confessional. For three years he and his group of open-hearted, open-eared tribe have made themselves available to listen. For free. Ben and I talked a bit and here’s what I learned.

Ok Ben, share a little about yourself and how you came up with Urban Confessional! 

BM: Well, I’m from Atlanta, GA. I play Ultimate Frisbee. I pee’d in Times Square during the black out of 2003. I can waste hours surfing music on YouTube. Sometimes, when people walk past me, I can feel their joy or their pain. My favorite BBQ place is in Athens, Alabama. I prefer photography over paintings. I don’t like to dance…well…it scares me…and I don’t like to be scared. The thing I miss the most in the world is a dog named Charlie.

I went to Portland once–the air smells different up there and I loved it. The side view mirror on my car is broken and it doesn’t bother me. I have to touch clothes before I buy them. My girlfriend is the truest artist I know and has the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. I love people, I love people, I love people. I prefer the mountains over the beach, unless I’m at the beach. I’m usually crying on the inside because it’s all so beautiful.

About 5 years ago, I left my wife. I couldn’t face the man I had become, and I couldn’t accept the grace she was trying to offer. So, I left. I walked out. She asked me to stay and to work it out. She wanted me to listen, but I couldn’t. So, I didn’t. I just left.

I believe forgiveness and generosity are two of the most powerful ways to love a broken world.

A few months later, I realized I was in a cycle of self service and self interest. I had so much to talk about, so many things I’d never admitted. So, I called someone. They listened to me. For the first time, walls started to crack and my heart started to open. I realized the healing power of being heard.

Shortly after, I was walking across the street and a homeless guy asked me for money. I didn’t have any, but I offered company, to listen to his stories. It was a powerful connection that I’d never really had before and wanted more. So, I decided to make a “Free Listening” sign and hit the streets. And there it all began!

How has open listening changed the way you choose to live your own life?

BM: It has changed everything. I am much more patient, other-centered, and open. I’m more giving of my time and my attention. I’m much more present in my own discomfort, and in the discomfort of others. I’m available to the world in ways I never thought possible.

I’ve become more aware of my own imperfections, and I can see beauty in them. I’ve realized that we’re all asking the same questions, and want the same things: to be loved, valued, heard, and accepted. Like I said…its changed everything!

How do you feel Urban Confessional can help on a larger scale to bring people together?

BM: Our love for the world must be strong enough to shoulder the weaknesses of the world. I believe forgiveness and generosity are two of the most powerful ways to love a broken world. So, for me, the only way to keep moving forward in the face of negativity, is to practice forgiveness and generosity. Forgive, then give.

That’s a combination of kindness that could heal the world. It’s not easy, and sometimes I’m not good at it, but when I can do it, I find a contentment the world can’t take away from me. It’s how I practice love for the world. I hope Urban Confessional is providing people with an opportunity to practice that kind of love for the world.

Urban Confessional
How would you like to see Urban Confessional and the concept of Free Listening grow?

BM: My goal is for Urban Confessional is to reach as many people as possible with an actionable message of non-judgmental listening. I want Urban Confessional to be know across the world for advancing compassion, understanding, and connection between people of all walks of life.

Real growth, though, doesn’t have anything to do with Urban Confessional as a movement. Real growth is measured when people argue less and listen more, when friends who disagree find patience through listening, and when we give our attention freely to the ones we love. When parents listen to their children, and teachers take time to listen before they instruct. When listening is valued as much as speaking. That’s real growth.

What has been the most satisfying conversation and the most upsetting?

BM: It’s the same conversation: One day a young girl (14 years old?) came up to me, gave me a giant hug, and said she was celebrating 75 days free. I asked her, “free from what”, and she said, “75 days free from cutting myself”. Then she showed me her arms—hundreds of scars. That was a powerful moment.

If you could give advice to your younger self, and young people now, what would you share?

The lesson I continue to learn is that if we can create beauty from our darkest moments, we can change the world. When we turn our pain and confusion into joy and action, we realize that we matter, and we are not alone. Never stop loving, never stop hoping, never stop trying. Love is real, hope is real, and the world needs what you have to offer.

One of our goals on Metiza is to Make Kindness Cool, to encourage others to be kind. How are you, and Urban Confessional seeking and spreading kindness/love?

BM: We want to provide a space where people feel free to express their deepest joys, fears, and tell their stories. When people feel heard, they feel validated and loved. In fact, my favorite quote about listening is attributed to David Augsburger: “Being heard is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.” I think that sums up our entire mission.

Final words of wisdom?

BM: Reach out to the person closest to you. Literally, start with the person next to you. Look at them right now and tell them they matter. Ask them what their dreams are, and listen to what they have to say. It doesn’t matter if you know them or not. Start there.

How to Participate in Free Listening Day, April 11th

1. Make a sign. Just write “Free Listening” on some cardboard or poster board. Your sign can be as simple or as artistic as you want it to be.
2. Choose a spot.Find a safe street corner where there’s lots of foot traffic. Hold up your sign and wait for someone to approach you.
3. Listen.When someone approaches you, put your sign down and listen, giving them your full attention. For more Listening guidelines, download our Partner Guide.
4. Share your experience. Take some photos of you and your friends Listening. Use hashtags #FLD2017 and #FreeListening and share your experience on social media.

For more kindness inspo, check out our Make Kindness Cool series here!

Editor in Chief of Metiza. Talk a bit too much, laugh a...