On Listening

Perhaps the Book of Jeremiah is not the best book of Scripture to be reading during the current election! As I watch not only the behavior of the candidates but the divisions this election is spawning even within families, it brings me back to perhaps the most critical lesson I have learned as a therapist. As is often the case, it was taught to me by a client.

Early in my career, a woman came to me seeking input regarding some life changes she was considering. After she briefly described her issues, I went off into a discourse about her problems and possible solutions. After I droned on for a bit, she politely put up her hand and said “Would you please be quiet and just listen to me for a while.” Amen to that!

The importance of listening has been dramatized to me many times since then. Many of the combat veterans I see, for example, have made it clear that, above all else, they long for someone who is willing to listen to their stories of horror.

Yet during these most troubled times, listening to one another has given way to shouts and threats. Whether it is politicians arguing about taxes, citizens on both sides of the issue of excessive force or various religions arguing over which one is satanic, few stop to listen.

Remember that listening is not necessarily the same as agreeing with. If I listen, I want to grasp not only the other person’s point of view but also hopefully the emotions underlying that opinion. Nowadays, many of us react to the opinion and overlook the fear underneath many of those opinions.

The ultimate challenge of listening may be for me to listen to myself. Some years ago, a beloved aunt died. I flew to California to help my brother with arrangements, knowing that I had some grief work to do. And so I wept, walked on the beach, went to Mass, and did the other things one does when grieving. I came back to El Paso very pleased with myself for “doing the work” and then conveniently filed it away.

A few months later I was watching an episode of Magnum PI of all things (just a humble reminder to me that teachers often come in unexpected ways!) In this episode, Magnum is apparently killed. The episode included a John Denver song “Looking for Space”. As this song played, I felt emotion welling up. I dismissed it.

The next morning, I decided to long for that song and found it. As I played the song, again emotion! I was off that day and so played the song again. The dam burst and I started sobbing. I went for a run, thinking this would disrupt the emotion. I sobbed through the run. Finally, I sat down to write in my journal.

It was in my journal that I saw that I had not been listening to myself, that I’d been avoiding an inner conversation. I had not heard my own ongoing grief. For a man who makes his living listening to others, it was a humble lesson.

Perhaps we all would benefit by stopping to listen for what lies beneath our own opinions.

I am not so naive as to suggest that simple listening will heal the world’s ills. However, I am also certain that a lack of listening takes us into dark possibilities such as those intoned by Jeremiah!

Reflections: 1. Have you ever felt listened to by someone? Describe that experience and its impact on you.

2. For your reflection and in his honor, here’s the song “Looking for Space”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRxKeMRjZSs