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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Listening


On any given day, a quick glance at what passes for a newspaper, talk show or news report whether on TV, radio or online demonstrates that the art of listening has gone the way of empathy, tolerance, and goodwill to name just a few of the virtues of which we are in short supply these days. For me, though, it begins with listening. It seems that as a society we have no interest in what anyone else has to say; we have already prepared our rejoinder before the words have escaped the speaker’s lips. Discourse, the give and take of exchanging views seems at best a quaint practice from a forgotten era, when at least we made a pretense of hearing what others had to say, before we responded. No subject is safe; any and every topic is a potential source of discord sometimes bordering on outright hostility. In fact, the only thing we might be able to agree on is that we cannot agree.

It would be easy but not accurate to lay the blame on our current political climate. But even if we were to move to another ground: faith, science, parenting, education—it really doesn’t matter—the din of disagreement, violent disagreement drowns out the reasoned exchange of ideas and perspectives. If this were simply a matter of highly principled individuals exchanging passionate beliefs I could almost understand, but that isn’t it at all. One can be passionate about one’s views without demonizing those who think differently. Worse, we appear to have skipped the part where we actually permit the other guy to offer any viewpoint that might differ from our own before the invectives and demeaning comments let fly.

I could go on decrying the state of affairs but thought I might take a moment to remind myself and anyone else who cares to listen that we are accomplishing nothing with this behavior. No one’s position is changed, no belief questioned and no room provided for reflection and consideration. For that you have to be able to hear what is said and most important of all, hold the speaker in sufficient regard that while you may not be persuaded by his or her thoughts you respect them and their right to differ.

Lest you think I am letting myself off this hook, I assure you I too have found myself unthinkingly engaging in the practice of tuning out thoughts with which I did not agree. The operative word here is unthinkingly. That is, I reacted, not after reflection and consideration had informed my response, but immediately, without time to think about what had been said. I am chastened to discover that I did this, but not surprised. This behavior is pandemic and it creeps in to infect our everyday lives to a degree that astounds me, which is why I wanted to write about it in this post.

I am not about to summon a bully pulpit to argue, why can’t we all get along? No, I am not quite that naïve. I’d settle for why can’t we just listen? Even if you are cynical, it’s sound strategy to understand what informs someone else’s perspective. How can one possibly offer a contrast without knowing why someone holds the views they represent?

I have a fantasy that I know I will never live to see, that one day I will hear two politicians, two leaders, scientists, human beings, patiently and respectfully begin a conversation with the earnest desire to understand each other. I imagine this exchange would proceed with each questioning the other in a genuine attempt to get at the underlying reasons they hold the views they’ve expressed. I do not assume there will be necessary conversion or agreement, but in my fantasy the participants end thoughtfully, acknowledging that they have gained new insight, and new-found respect for each other. Ok, that only happens in the world of imagination—not real life.

And that my friends is my point. Unless we permit ourselves the license to imagine a different way of interacting with one another I don’t see how we can escape this circle of enmity. We are teaching it to our children from the day they are born even as we preach otherwise. They are observant and they learn very quickly. What is it we want for them—a world where we shoot first (metaphorically or otherwise) and listen later, or a tolerant, compassionate and yes, complex world where differing views do not rob us of our essential humanity or respect for one another? That’s a decision each of us must make for ourselves, but this much I know, we won’t go wrong teaching them, by listening to what they have to say, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven”.


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