Listening: A Eulogy

A few days ago I wrote a blog about choosing love over hate in the face of a Trump presidency. I’m just gonna toot my own horn here: it was beautiful, concise, and I still believe the things I wrote in it are worthwhile and good.

But that’s not the blog I’m publishing today (and sorry, but this one isn’t exactly concise). I’m not posting that one because right before I pushed the “publish” button, I showed it to someone I love dearly, and instead of agreeing with me and saying, “Wow, what a great point,” she put her gloves up. She felt attacked. Later, I found out she’s felt attacked this whole election, and my blog only made that cut deeper. At first this made me mad – if she’d listened, she’d actually get what I’m saying – but then it made me sad. Because she was probably thinking the same thing about me, and she would be right to.

We all know the functional definition of listening: not talking so someone else can talk. My friend and I functionally listened to each other while discussing my blog, but I don’t think we actually listened. If we had, we would have asked intentional questions and then given each other space to answer. We would have fought the temptation to defend and justify ourselves while the other was talking. We would have given each other the green light to be and to express and to live without the addition of our judgment, agenda, or even our “help”. But we didn’t – and one look at my Facebook feed tells me we’re not alone in that.

I don’t need to convince you we’ve forgotten how to listen. Our candidates didn’t listen to each other (did you see those laughable things they called “debates”?), and neither did they listen to large portions of the American population. Somewhere along the way, large portions of the American population decided to follow their example, and right now, we are seeing the fruit of that decision in the form of protests, hate-crimes, and prejudices that have gone beyond the screen and spilled over into real life. Even through the limited lens of a smartphone, the picture has been harrowing, to say the least.

Listening is hard, I get it. It’s a vulnerable place to be in, because the other person could say hurtful things that aren’t true, or even (gasp) hurtful things that are true. They might say things you’ve never considered before, things that might stop you in your tracks and make you dismantle your carefully crafted beliefs and examine them piece by piece again. You have to have a spine of steel to listen often and listen well, because you will at some point be challenged to the core of yourself by what you hear. But, friends, we have to try; we’ve seen the cost if we don’t.

Have you ever asked that “intolerant, close-minded” Trump supporter why they voted for him? Have you ever asked that “naïve, whiny” millennial why they voted for Hillary? Have you ever asked that woman who was sexually assaulted why she’s devastated by Trump’s “locker room” banter, why that Muslim woman is afraid to wear a headscarf to the grocery store, or why that Christian speaks so passionately against abortion? I haven’t. Not nearly enough.

And I’m not talking about asking these things on social media; we’ve lost that privilege. I’m talking about sitting across the table from your black neighbor over lunch and asking him what his experience in America has been like the last year, shaking the hand of your middle-class white friends and asking them how they felt watching their business tank during the economic crash, putting your arm around your Mexican co-worker and asking her whether or not she got the acceptance and safety she was promised. And then listening. 

It’s not that it’s wrong to speak. If it were, we wouldn’t be able to offer words of comfort or healing, promote justice, challenge each other to think differently, or [insert irony here] write blogs about challenging each other to think differently. No, there is a good and right time to speak. The point is, if we speak to be heard rather than to communicate and connect with and learn from other people, we’re not loving each other. We’re loving ourselves.

There’s another way we listen/don’t listen to people, and I learned about it a few years ago while sitting on the end of a hotel bed in Dublin, Ireland. My mom and I were in the middle of a sightseeing trip around the UK, and though our relationship had been rocky for years, this trip had brought everything to the surface (funny how family vacations can do that). I remember after a particularly ugly argument, she went downstairs to eat breakfast while I stayed in the room to cool down. It was there, on the edge of that uncomfortable excuse for a bed, that I had “the epiphany”. I call it an epiphany because it really felt like a veil had been lifted and I suddenly knew what was broken between us. Before I had the chance to lose my nerve, I marched downstairs, sat directly across from her, and just as she was about to cut into her bacon and eggs, asked: “Do you feel judged by me?”

The response was swift, clear, and felt like a punch to the gut: “Yes.”

Even though I knew she was going to say that, it still sent a shockwave of guilt through me. “I’m really sorry,” I mumbled, my eyes fixated on the ground. Building up what little courage I had left, I looked at her again and asked, “Have you felt judged by me for a long time?”

This time she paused, as if unsure whether or not to say it, then, “Yes.”

In all our years of tension, never had I thought to ask that question. Never had I thought to ask why she cared about the things she cared about, why she said the things she said, or why she did the things she did, I just judged her for it from afar. Sometimes, friends, not listening isn’t just ignoring what someone says; it’s distancing yourself just enough so you can close your eyes to who they are.

Jesus once told his followers, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Not only did he literally lay down his life for his friends hours after saying this, but he also laid down his life for them every hour before that. The moment he became human, he opened his eyes wide to the heartache and joys and fears we experience everyday. God listened, and he did it in the most powerful, intimate way you can: by entering into someone’s situation and experiencing it for yourself. 

Someday, I would love to share my opinion about the election, preferably over a fresh cup of pour-over coffee. But this day, I feel more convicted to call my friend back and say, “Okay, tell me what this election has been like for you. I want to know.” This day, I think I would love you better if I stopped typing, asked more questions, and listened.

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