“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”
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?