There are so many words and so much information flying around that it gets overwhelming. Our world is increasingly hyped and we go along with it. A digital world and a life of multi-tasking set us up for this. One result of living in a constant hyper state is that we begin to lose clarity as to what is urgent and what is not. In the midst of the din we lose our sense of self, and our ability to see and hear one another becomes diminished.
When everything was still open, my wife went to the Midwest to visit family. After several meals by myself, I decided to eat at a local restaurant. In the next booth were a man and a boy about eight years old; I assumed they were father and son. The father was busy on his phone while the boy was talking to him and pouring out all sorts of things. There was no response from the father, except for an occasional grunt. I found myself wanting to say, “Hey guy, the real action is not on your phone. The real action is right there before you. Your kid is telling you things.” While the urge to speak was strong, I decided against it since most likely it would have been counterproductive.
But as I ate I got to thinking, “Is listening a lost art?”
Some years ago, a member of my congregation came to see me to talk. During our time together, I listened and made brief responses to further the conversation. That flow went on until we reached a point of silence which became an extended silence. I thought about making a comment that would perhaps further the conversation, but then I thought better of it. I continued to sit there and be quietly present. We sat together in silence. The silence was broken when my parishioner let loose with an emotional outpouring that ended in sobbing. All the pain and anguish that had been pent up for years was breaking open and flooding out. The real issue was now out and before us. It was a major breakthrough which in time resulted in healing and a new way forward. After the session I thought, I am so glad that I just let the silence be. Had I said something, the breakthrough might have been thwarted. That would have been most unfortunate!
There is wisdom in saying
“God gave us two eyes, two ears and one mouth and we should use them accordingly.” That wisdom is not often practiced. A helpful exercise for us is to see how long we can listen without speaking. How long can we go without being the center of attention? It can be an informative exercise, and maybe even a startling one.
Sometimes we are on the other end of the listening exercise. You may find that when you are talking, you don’t get very far at all before the other person has to comment or maybe jump in, even while you are in mid-sentence. Committee meetings are infamous for this behavior. Is listening a lost art?
This may sound like a jump in logic
I suggest that part of the reason why we have such a deep problem with racism is due to our poor listening skills. We need to hear people from their frame of reference and not ours. That is not easy. White people need to listen beyond a white frame of reference. People of Color have been crying out for a long time but we have not truly heard them because we have not been really listening or we have been listening only from our white world’s frame of reference. Therefore we never got to the point of really hearing and seeing.
If COVID had not broken us open and made us vulnerable maybe we would not have heard George Floyd cry out, “I can’t breathe!” Others before him had cried out and while we heard, we didn’t really hear. But this time the world heard. It is good we heard, and it is good that we are educating ourselves to see and understand beyond our white race. This is work. It is also the road to peace and justice.
It is also living Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.
One more jump in logic: Maybe the failure to listen is also part of the reason that we have a climate crisis. In its own way, the earth has been crying out to us for a long time but we did not hear. St. Paul may have been writing more wisdom than he was aware when he wrote, “the whole of creation has been groaning.” (Rom. 8:22)
Where do we begin?
We start with ourselves. Listening is not easy. It takes time and practice. This is why daily prayer is so essential. By spending time in silence with the Word in a contemplative manner, we begin to get in touch with the Spirit. That will lead into getting in touch with our inner self, which moves us toward being in touch with the larger world and our place within it.
Contemplation is not easy
There will be times when one sits with the Word in contemplation and suddenly one becomes aware of something that they need to do. There is the impulse to just jump up and do that. Resist that impulse. The impulse usually comes at the moment when the Spirit is about to speak. The unease is a deep sense that there is a movement to something that we do not understand and may even wish to avoid. Stay with it. Something important is going on in you that should not be disturbed. Resisting the impulse to flee usually leads to insight. The practice of silence and sitting with the Word over time brings the gifts of the Spirit.
We need to listen
We need to listen long and quietly to what the Spirit is saying to us.
We need to be fully present to others in our listening — hearing not only the words but also the thoughts and feelings behind the words.
We need to listen so we can hear all people, and hear them in a way we have not done before.
We need to listen to the earth in its song of beauty and in its cry for help.
Is listening a lost art? For many it is. But for those who are willing to set aside their activity and noise, and sit with the Word and listen, then wonderful things will happen. We will begin to hear the Spirit speaking in our souls and speaking to us through other people. We will also hear the song and the groaning of creation itself.