If I Listen Long Enough

I was born when all I once feared–I could love.  Rabia

Someone once asked why I listen and I heard myself say, “If I listen long enough to a person, I can learn to love them.”  The key to that sentence is “long enough”.  What I’ve learned is that most of the time, people listen only long enough to gather the inner ammunition to defend their own position. Or if not that, to think of a witty reply, funny comeback or intellectual response that reflects favorably on who they believe they are. I know this, because, of course, I’ve discovered that is what I’ve done. We rarely wait until a person has even finished a sentence to interrupt with our response, or if there is a pause, to even fill in the word we think should be next in the sentence.  It can become a conversation of oneupmanship, sometimes aggressively so, sometimes more subtle. This kind of abbreviated listening can still be interesting and enjoyable, but it doesn’t take the relationship deeper.

When I first came to Alaska in the 70’s, a pastor friend told me he had gone to visit a congregation in a village in the bush. There was a contentious issue and the Native community had met to discuss it. He told me that the meeting went on and on. One speaker alone had talked for hours and it was approaching 3:00 a.m. He turned to the friend who had brought him and asked, “When will he be asked to stop?”  The friend turned to him and said, “We listen all the way to the very end.”

I believe it was that statement that began to turn around my own listening and to imagine a way of paying attention that I had never known in my own culture. Had I ever listened all the way to the very end? What had this Native community learned about listening that I never had? I felt the integrity of it, the patience, the desire to honor that person and also to preserve harmony in the village.  It was shocking to me and humbling. I realized it was a way of loving.image.png

It’s easy to love people who are nice, easy-going, agreeable and have the same views on life as I do.  The test of my own integrity, patience and desire for community then comes with those that I contend with. Those are the ones that actually hone me into being human. I remember one conversation with a man who was ranting about what the Bible says about homosexuality and how we couldn’t allow that in our society. It was hard to listen to his judgment and his anger. Then I knew I wasn’t really listening anymore. I was judging him! So I asked him a question that I hoped would change our relationship– “So what is YOUR story in all that?”  He stopped, surprised. “My story?”  Then tears came up in his eyes and he said, “Well, no one has ever loved me.”  And then I heard of his losses of the heart, and the more he talked, the more I loved him.

I don’t mean to say that it is possible or even healthy to always listen all the way to the very end. Sometimes the words can be too toxic, too impaired by drugs or alcohol, too suggestive or abusive to allow the person to continue. At the Listening Post where we listen to the marginalized and vulnerable of the city, we have good boundaries about that. But we don’t necessarily end the relationship. We may ask them to come back another time when they are sober. We make it plain that we don’t listen to talk that is harmful or disrespectful. However if it is simply a difference in opinion, we might ask a question that takes us into relationship.  “How did you come to have that belief? Will you be willing to share that with me?”

I’ve got a lot yet to learn and even more to fully embed in my way of listening. Yet I continue to be drawn by a belief that it is never the wrong thing to do. Yes, there is a time to stand up for one’s beliefs, but the listening comes first. Not a passive not-speaking, but an active listening that in simply being present to the other, there is an unseen relationship that forms and informs. And builds community by learning to understand each other, not fear each other.

It takes time. A long time. It’s listening “all the way to the very end” in a hope of discovering the thread that connects us as human beings.

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