Recently, I watched the movie Worth. It’s the story of Kenneth Feinberg and his team, who were given the responsibility of determining which victims of 9/11 would receive compensation – and how much. The movie demonstrates the evolution of Feinberg’s approach, where he learns to deal with people as people – not as statistics.
The movie reminded me that one of my favorite podcast episodes – ever – is an interview Alex Blumberg did with Feinberg a few years ago. It is a fascinating conversation where Feinberg himself describes how he went about his job dispersing the funds, and how he offers up-front to meet in person with any victim or family member who wants to come see him. And similar to the movie, he is changed as people come to share their stories with him.
And share they did. Hundreds and hundreds of people sit down with Feinberg. Blumberg asks him if he remembers the first conversation. Feinberg replies:
I remember it like it was yesterday. A 24-year-old woman came to see me, sobbing. “Mr. Feinberg, my husband died in the World Trade Center. He was a fireman. And he left me with our two children, six and four. Now, I’ve applied to the fund and you have calculated that I’m going to get $2.8 million tax free. I want it in 30 days.”
Now, Mr. Feinberg, why 30 days? I have terminal cancer. I have 10 weeks to live.”
And that was just one of nearly a thousand stories shared with Feinberg, leading Blumberg to ask him: Did you get better at these conversations as you had more of them?
I start out as a lawyer in these conversations, he says, but then quickly morph into a rabbi or priest – as people need from him, not numbers and stats and contract language, but someone to listen. Through it all, Feinberg learns to talk less, and listen more; to focus less on the numbers, and more on the names.
He tells of the father who lost his son at the Pentagon. His son had escaped, but then went back in to look for his sister, who also worked there. He didn’t know she had gotten out of the building alive, but in going back in, he lost his life. The father tells Feinberg, “My life is over. I’m just going through the motions. A father should never have to bury a son.”
Feinberg then looks at him, and in an attempt to show empathy, says, “This is terrible. You lost your son. I know how you feel.”
The father replied:
Mr. Feinberg, you got a tough job. I don’t’ envy what you have to do, but let me give you a little bit of advice: don’t every tell somebody like me that you know how I feel. You have no idea how I feel, and it’s condescending, it’s hollow, and it’s pretentious. And I wouldn’t do if it I were you.
Feinberg tells Blumberg: “Well, I never did that again. You learn the hard way. You make mistakes every time, and you try and learn from those mistakes.”
By sheer necessity, Feinberg the lawyer learned to be Feinberg the pastor. By virtue of spending time with people who had experienced pain and loss, Feinberg learned to meet them where they are.
Isn’t that the way life is? No matter our background and experience, if we enter space with someone who is hurting, and if we’ll close our mouths long enough to listen, we’ll learn. We’ll learn to listen better. We’ll learn how much we don’t know. We’ll learn to open our hearts. We’ll learn that for even the strongest person, the most faithful person, there are questions we can’t answer and sorrows we can’t solve.
Feinberg was dealing with millions of dollars and a national catastrophe. But it was clearly about something more valuable than money – where a day of tragedy was really the collection of thousands of lives, their stories, their families, their heartbreak.
For, as it turns out, in their moments of greatest need, what people need most is not a lawyer, but a listener. What people need most is not someone to fix things – or fix them. What they need is someone to listen, to care, to support, to be there, to walk with them through what can’t be fixed or explained. It was true for Ken Feinberg; I think it’s also true for me and you.