A few days ago, Maria was telling me about a troubled child of a friend, and the story upset me. How parents treat the problems of their children is a personal and deeply painful issue for me, and I was critical of the parents involved. "You seem so angry, even self-righteous about it," she said, and that upset me further.
We argued about it, somewhat sharply for us, and then, as I lay in bed that night, I had this thought: What was wrong with that conversation? I wasn't listening to what Maria said.
I couldn't see what she saw, I couldn't hear what she heard. I only understood it when I stopped and listened. And then, I saw and heard. We were good again.
I woke her up, and I said "this is a hard issue for me, but I'm sorry, I was obviously angrier than I realized and then I had a right to be. It isn't my child, it isn't really my business." I wasn't angry anymore, it wasn't my life. She understood what I was saying, saw the hurt in me.
A few days later, a friend in town called me up. He is a passionate if not uncritical supporter of the new President, he was upset that I was writing about the Syrian refugees and he was unhappy that I was trying to raise money for the refugees in their new homes in America.
He thought I was wrong in sympathizing with them so much, and was missing the point. He assumed my work with the refugees was a political statement.
This is another of those issues that is important to me, and also for personal reasons, and I am not certain I could argue it calmly.
I heard my voice rising. I don't care to be told what to write, and I don't argue my beliefs, I don't want to join in that awful din of the left and the right. Then I stopped. He was my friend, and he was troubled, and I wasn't listening, and if I didn't listen, how could we be friends?
So I took a deep breath and listened.
My friend said I didn't understand that the world had changed, and we had to change, it wasn't just about nice people needing help, it was about feeling safe and in control of our lives and our country.
Bad things can happen, he said. I didn't respond, I just listened. He said some interesting things I had not thought about. I listened. Thanks for listening to me, he said, next time, I'd like to listen to you. Those words made an impression on me. We had affirmed our friendship.
We are still good friends, I value him. I see that he values me.
Listening is a powerful tool. The November election was a great gift to me in so many ways. I am more alive, more focused, paying more attention. And listening more than ever. Most people, I have learned, do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.
I am not in despair or rage, I am doing good by my own lights in my own way, as are so many others. These are exciting times for me, I feel very much alive and relevant. Even useful, sometimes.
Self-righteousness is an awful obstacle to listening. We we assume that we are superior to those we disagree with, we have crossed the line between morality to self-righteousness, and there is no listening on that path.
Listening is not about agreeing, or submitting or approving. It is about respect and dignity and understanding. One of the most authentic forms of respect is to actually listen to what another human being – or animal, for that matter – has to say and is trying to tell us.
Listening heals and soothes. It uplifts. It transcends anger and misunderstanding, it promotes knowledge and growth. I hear you, I know what you mean, are words I find myself saying more often than before. Those are not the same words as you are right, I agree with you.
By listening to Maria, I was saying many things without a single word. I was saying, I respect you, and am hearing you and will consider what you have told me. I will not interrupt you, or talk over you. I will hear you. And that is one of the purest forms of love that there is. It is transforming, it touches the people who are being heard in a way that argument almost never can.
When I listened to my friend say things I so utterly and completely disagree with, I am saying "even though we disagree, I respect you as a human being and connect with you as a fellow human being trying to make his own way in the world." I saw that he was afraid for himself, for his family. He wanted a safer world for his children.
A number of people have strongly disagreed with me about listening, they have told me angrily – mostly on Facebook – that I am enabling racism and hatred and injustice. They believe there is no compromise or communication on those issues. But l do not share that view, at least not when it comes to listening.
Listening promotes dignity and connection, it is a bridge that spans the widest misunderstandings and fragmentation. It can smother hatred and ignorance as well as enable it.
Listening is the universal dialogue of the spiritually advanced. The truly spiritual, the truly gifted, the truly brilliant, practice listening as a discipline, a path to learning. Listening is a powerful tool. Listeners do not talk over me, jump in on my sentences, stifle my thoughts before they get chance to live or are finished, talk over me, kill my words in flight. Instead, they listen and wait.
If you look through the posts on Facebook, as I try to do once every day, you can clearly see this impulse to declaim, but very rarely to listen. Social media often teaches us to talk, but not to hear.
Listen with integrity, wrote author Roy T. Bennett. "The greatest problem with communication is that we don't listen to understand. When we listen with curiosity, we don't listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what's behind the words."
Listening with integrity is not about submission. It is about wanting to understand what is beyond the words and arguments.
And thus, we learn and grow and change. I am grateful for the time we live in, it is challenging and difficult and painful. It is important. Listening has never been more critical.
I am listening more faithfully and thoughtfully than ever before, and this, I believe is reflected in my writing and photography and ideas. My values are stronger than ever, and I am living them more authentically and effectively than ever.
I listened to my friend talk about immigration, and then I went out and helped raised thousands of dollars to help the new refugees coming to America. I understand myself and my beliefs better than ever before. I am listening to me, too.