The Art Of Listening by the famed psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was published in 1994, it became an instant classic and new and hardcover copies sell for up to $1,900. I have been looking for this book for a while, and finally came across a bookseller in England who had a paperback in good shape that he sold me for $50. I found out later that is in prison there and runs a used book business out of his cell in Cellblock J, his return address.
The book arrived today, and I am hooked on it, I’ve already turned down a dozen pages and will be up late reading it. I understand why it is so popular and difficult to find.
My prisoner-bookseller has a 99 percent approval rating on Amazon, and I was happy to give him five stars. Maybe I can get him up to 100.
I was despairing of ever being able to afford this book and I did not wish to read it on a Kindle. My copy is already thumbed and worn.
Fromm’s book is really about the power of analysis, but for many, it was his writing about listening and the search for unselfish understanding that drew me. I believe our culture and it’s people are forgetting how to listen, I know a handful of people in my life who understand that listening is an art, and is also the key to love.
Unselfish understanding is truly selfless, it is not about what we think or feel, it is about what someone else feels and understands. And if you can’t care about others, you cannot possibly understand them.
A woman messaged me this morning, she was unhappy that I was helping undocumented agricultural workers – some people still call them illegal aliens – because it is harsher. She could not understand why I helping our friend Camilla, she entered the country illegally and thus, she said forfeited any kind of sympathy or constitutional rights.
I was struck not by the fact that this woman disagreed with what I was doing, which is perfectly acceptable to me, but with her inability to have any kind of empathy for this women who gets up at 5 a.m. every cold winter morning and every other day of the year to clean up pig slop in knee-deep mud and manure and is thus partly responsible for the fact that we have food to eat. Her life is bounded by a small and decrepit trailer and the farm where she works and the houses that she cleans.
There is, I imagine, and any farmer will testify, not an American in our whole country who will apply for this work or do it.
I understand that we cannot let the whole troubled earth enter our country illegally and without resources and hope to survive, but I can still feel empathy for the people who have come for no other reason than to feed themselves and their families, or to escape slaughter and genocide. That, to me, can never be a crime, even if they cannot remain here. To me, empathy is not about agreement but about listening and understanding.
Our political system, to which we are now paying a frightening amount of addictive attention, is devoid of listening or understanding, and is thus ill. So are the many people whose hearts have turned to stone and who blindly follow equally addictive ideologies and arguments and become damaged and corrupted by them.
As someone who underwent analysis in New York City in its final sunset years in the 1980’s, I find the book especially powerful. I am so grateful for my time in analysis. Every good thought I have ever had comes from there.
Analysis is all about listening, so is life. And so is love and empathy.
The experience of analysis, something no insurance will pay for now, transformed me and was the beginning of my long and hard path to self-awareness and authenticity. I am still on that path, and will one day die on it.
“Understanding and love are inseparable, “writes Fromm, “If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.” That quote seems to capture the disease sweeping out country and its civic life.
Psychoanalysis, writes Fromm, is a process of understanding a person’s mind, particularly that part which is not conscious. It is an art like the understanding of poetry. The basic rule for practicing the art of self-awareness and consciousness is the art of listening, he writes. The analyst listens to the analysand, and the analysand learns to listen to himself or herself.
Fromm offers six rules and norms for the art of listening:
1. The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
2. Nothing of importance must be on his or her mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
3.He must possess a freely working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
4. She or he must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
5. The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love.
To understand another means to love him or her – not in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out to him or her and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself. It is a profound spiritual experience for me to truly understand someone who makes me uncomfortable or whom i strongly disagree with.
6. Thus understanding and love are inseparable. One without the other is an intellectual, not an emotional experience and the door to true understanding is slammed shut.
I appreciate the wisdom of these rule and norms. They are difficult to achieve, and few people try or even seem to grasp what listening is at this moment in time. We are at a point in our world where we are forever shouting at one another, talking right over each other’s heads, and the more we talk and argue the less we understand.
Many people listen only for the chance to reply.
Like the analyst, the listener must not try to please or impress, but rest within him or herself. And that is the hard part, to understand someone else we must first try to understand ourselves. In my relationship with Maria, I always understood that love was not possible without understanding.
The more we understood one another, the more we loved one another, in some strange way, it was just that simple.
Love and understanding are truly inseparable, and true understanding is impossible with empathy, the ability to understand others and to care for them, no matter what they say or believe.
Listening is an art, and one of the gifts of the past few months is that I am inspired to listen, not to shout.
Some years ago, I gave up asking “what happened to me?,” and instead began to ask “how do I feel?”
I am finally getting somewhere.