“Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.” – Pope Francis
As I was out on my run a few mornings ago, I found myself listening. Not to the latest news, my favorite podcast, or even the melodies of Telemann or Vivaldi (truly some of the best music to run to – try it!). No, I found myself listening to the chorus of chickadees and sparrows breaking the silence of a snow blanketed earth with their morning songs. In that moment, I felt the icy grip of this long, dark winter loosen its bonds on my soul. I wondered if they knew I was listening to their melodies. I wondered if they could ever know what a gift they had given me in the act of listening and being listened to.
I wondered if they were listening to the conversation I was having with God. I know that God always hears my prayers, but at times I don’t always feel like God is listening to me God’s voice is not always something we can or want to hear. His voice reveals to us our deepest and sometimes painful truths about who we are – but we also hear that we are His. As the sun peeked over the mountain top and warmed the frosted valley and my frostbit face, I had a spiritual awakening. I had been heard. The feeling of being listened to, of being heard, of being accepted and not judged for my thoughts and insecurities did more for me than any vain attempt to fill the silence with bluster and avoid the uncomfortable intimacy of deep conversation with God. If only all conversations could be so fruitful.
At the heart of all relationships is the act of listening. Or at least it used to be. Now we have platforms to post to; platforms through which we can form and shape our persona and control how we want others to see us and hear us. As a Communications major in college, I learned that the medium was the message. Now the message is created precisely for the medium – and it would seem we are all very busy messaging who we are to the world. It doesn’t always work out how we envisioned though. Through our careful curation of our platform persona, much of who we are is lost. No matter how in touch we are with ourselves or how strong our claim of identity is, regardless of the independence we profess, who we are is deeply influenced by those we interact with. Our interactions with others provide us with the sense of who we are. Choose your interactions wisely and choose to interact in person not on a platform.
I am reminded of a deep conversation I recently had with a good friend, one filled with honesty and pain, hope and laughter. Conversation – the act of talking and listening, speaking and being heard – is one of the most valuable gifts we can give each other. The transfer of ideas from one mind to another in a trusting dance of giving, receiving, and understanding immeasurably enriches our lives.
To be authentically heard by someone is an incredible gift, one that can heal wounds left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. To listen to someone is to tap into a deeper essence of their being and share a oneness that precludes background, religion, culture, and class. For in that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of who they are, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.
Indeed, the act of listening has incredible power. Listening can be a powerful force for good when done well but a powerful force for evil to take hold in someone’s life when done poorly or not at all.
Anyone who feels they haven’t been listened to can give testimony to this. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them – feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking.
To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make their presence known other than to let the one who needs to be heard know that they are open to receive, to welcome, and accept what one has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear their own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.
The late theologian, Henry Nouwen, describes the act of listening as spiritual hospitality.
“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
We live in a time when much of life is virtual, contrived, distant, and produced. Is it any wonder that our world has become fractured? Fault lines that were undetectable in the past now threaten to break open as our foundations of mutuality and trust are weakened by uncertainty and misunderstanding.
But I have hope. I think we all long for community and healing, authenticity and forgiveness, life in the midst of death, peace between peoples, and fulfillment amid challenges. We all long to understand and be understood. And it all starts with listening.
Having experienced the healing power of being heard, I am intent on becoming a better listening presence in the lives of others. I think the world needs more listeners and fewer platformers. Listeners who are willing to engage in an exchange from the deepest level of our humanity. Perhaps if we really listened, we might all feel more at home with others and ourselves, comforted and encouraged by the grace and peace of authentic relationship.
Listen and you just might hear the melody of a new day and new way dawning.
Let your light so shine!