Why listen?

“The truth is that we need to talk and hear each other’s voices. The world’s first contour is the music of speaking; your mother’s voice or your father’s, heard through the walls of the womb. Once we are sure of voices, that they will go on talking to us and not leave us alone, then we need them to tell us about God (whom we need to hear about, as Augustine said, more than we need Dido’s lament) and what will happen to us when we die. The need to hear the voice stands among us like a vacuum. It is not private. It is almost not inside us at all, but inside the genus humanum, our only common possession.”

—Lionel Basney, “The Space for Grief”

On Thursday, I wrote about stories—why they’re important, why we should tell them. There’s another side to telling stories, though, one I talked about implicitly, but not explicitly: listening.

Listening comes more easily for some of us than others (*cough*—introverts—*cough*), but everyone is capable of listening well, and if telling stories is important, listening to them is at least as important.

I participated in a group discussion recently and stayed mostly silent (verbally, anyway—I was nonverbally communicating plenty). To be honest, this tends to be my M.O. in group settings. Not a very good trait for a grad student, but I like hearing and compiling and weighing other thoughts and opinions before sorting out my own. Anyway, after this discussion, one of my acquaintances from the group turned to me and commented on my reticence, on my apparent unwillingness to share my thoughts. “I wish you would have talked more,” he said. “Don’t you think you’re being selfish?”

I was a little irritated, but not offended—most of the time this is at least a partly legitimate response to my silence. Sometimes in staying silent, especially if that silence is motivated by fear, I am denying certain facets of creativity and community that are fostered by sharing. In that situation, though, my answer was “No.” I found more value in keeping my mouth shut and ears open.

Sometimes, it’s best to listen. To listen with our minds and hearts and souls and bodies.

Bishop Gene Robinson appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show last week to talk about Occupy Wall Street, which he sees as a “cry for community.” (If you haven’t already seen it, the interview is available here—definitely worth watching.) Bishop Robinson went down to Zuccotti Park, and made a point to listen to the people there—he jokes about how keeping one’s mouth shut is tough for a bishop—because he thinks listening is important.

He told Maddow, “I think we’ve got something to learn. You know, the prophets of the Jewish Old Testament, Micah and Jeremiah and Isaiah said very difficult things to those who are in power. And the nation of Israel was saved because some of those kings and those in power listened.”

Robinson’s response to OWS is active listening, and he’s not alone—in stories about religious leaders at the protests, listening is at the forefront. “Be prepared to listen,” the Protest Chaplains blog advises. It’s probably safe to assume that most clergy are practiced listeners, but we could all do to follow this advice.

In fact, I think this is vital advice for anyone who cares about church communities. OWS has been described as church-like—people coming together, forming connections and community, working together for a cause. Bishop Robinson noted that much of what’s going on in Zuccotti Park is about making connections and living interconnectedly, even (inter)dependently. We don’t want to go it alone anymore.

The Church can be this kind of community. At its best, it already is.

In one of my first posts, I mentioned Nadia Bolz-Weber’s call to listen to Millennials, to talk with the demographic known for leaving church instead of just trying to dam the outward flow. I said there are probably as many preferences and expectations for church as there are Millennials. Well, there are probably as many reasons for protesting as there are Occupy protestors, too, but that doesn’t stop people across the globe from getting out and getting together.

Will listening save the world? No way. (That’s where we need Jesus.) But listening will make space for the stories that need to be told—and remember, stories have power. It will show Christ’s love to those who need someone to hear them. It will make you a wiser, more open, more generous person. It will make you more attentive to the voice of God, who rarely shouts and so often speaks through the voices of those around us.

And that’s a whole lot of something.


When have you given the gift of listening to someone? When has someone given you that gift? Do you find it easier to listen or to speak?


6 thoughts on “Why listen?

  1. Being a fellow introvert, I too believe that silence can be a strength when it comes to listening. And this is not just to support my introvertedness (Yeah, I made up a word. I, too, am an English major), but I feel that in a community influenced by social media (“Look at my status update! Like it!”) and digital communication (which is great, btw. Alissa and I wrote up a syllabus about it), nothing can quite top the physical presence of just being, just listening.

    I hope, Alissa, that you don’t mind if I bring in a totally non-academic reference here, but your post reminded me of a past Glee episode in which one of the characters got down on her knees to pray because she felt that in this position, God could hear her better.

    (Note: I’m also taking a course this semester on Gender, Rhetoric, and the Body)

    When I saw this, my first instinct was to think: “Well, it doesn’t matter where you are. God can hear you anywhere.” I pray throughout the day (and not just in hopes that my students will talk that day): at my desk, when walking down the hall, or heading to my car. Today, I took a reflective moment to pray for a professor on my floor who lost his mother this weekend. But at night just before bed, after I turn the lights off and I take a moment to reflect on my day and thank God for the small miracles He’s given me, I pray on my knees. Call me a traditionalist. But maybe there is something to the way we use our bodies when we pray and how that affects our listening. Maybe the way we position ourselves physically helps us to better reflect, to better listen. Or maybe not. But it’s worth throwing it out there, no?

    • Hey, partner-in-awesome! Thanks for your comment. I absolutely think listening and body are connected. For instance, I think having an “open” or “closed” position while I’m listening to someone actually affects how I listen (besides how my listening is perceived).

      Actually a lot of what appeals to me about Anglican-style worship is how much I use my body—kneeling, standing, sitting, bowing, crossing myself, processing with the choir, speaking, singing (etc., etc.). Maybe you’re more used to this, ’cause the Anglicans got it from the Catholics, but the church I grew up in was not very body-aware—we stayed in our pews the whole time, even for Communion, and the first time I went to a church with kneelers, I had no clue what they were for (little footrests?).

      I think there’s also something to the “ritual memory” of traditional prayer poses—we recognize kneeling as a position of prayer because when we kneel our bodies remember the other times we’ve knelt. (Also, Glee is fabulous. You can reference it any time you want.)

  2. Another great post, Alissa. I continue to be in awe of your ability to blog and be a grad student at the same time.

    In the last month I’ve been thinking a lot about listening and stories, specifically, what stories we choose to listen to. In an age where I can choose to surround myself exclusively with stories I agree with (I decide where to get my news, where to get my theology, where to get my education,etc.), I think being a good listener is also dependent upon choosing to expose myself to ideas that I might not necessarily agree with. I thought I was an open-minded, good listener until I saw how disgusted I felt one day at the prospect of listening to something on Fox News. I don’t think it’s enough today to simply listen to the people around us. I think being a good listener requires us to seek out the stories we never hear.

    • Thanks, Lindsay — I think the grad-school-and-blog thing is as much insanity as ability.

      I like your point about listening to ideas you might not agree with. It’s something I try to do, too — intentionally via the blogs I read, and just as a matter of course with friends and colleagues. I had a philosophy prof in undergrad who said he tells all his advisees to take classes in the areas they’re less interested in, because they’re more likely to study topics they’re interested in on their own. For me, it’s part of putting together the giant disco ball. I figure I’m dead wrong about some stuff. N.T. Wright habitually says he figures about a third of his theology is wrong. So without the pride of being right, we’re open to hearing the stories of others — I really like that about “seek[ing] out the stories we never hear,” because I think that’s a huge part of overcoming oppression.

  3. “It will make you more attentive to the voice of God, who rarely shouts and so often speaks through the voices of those around us.”

    Yes yes and yes.

    Another great post, Alissa. =)

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