Thursday, November 08, 2007

Listening is an Act of Love

This morning on my way to work I had the radio tuned to NPR. Unfortunately, because of fatigue and road noise, I wasn't able to listen too carefully to the stories until I heard the announcer say, Listening is an act of love. It stuck out to me as though someone had hi-lighted it with a bright yellow marker. The rest of the story was faded and garbled to my ears, but every time the announcer said, Listening is an act of love, I was moved. It had it's own meaning to me -- one that might have been related to the story, but I don't know.

In reading Erich Fromm's book The Art of Loving, I became familiar with his idea that love is not an emotion or feeling that you fall in and out of, but rather love is "an interpersonal creative capacity" comprised of "care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge." Love is work. It takes discipline to love well. And, what is more loving than to listen with respect and empathy to someone you care for? And simultaneously, what can be more challenging at times? It's difficult when you try not only to hear what the person is saying, but also try to listen to what is beyond the words. What does this person need? And, more specifically, what do they want/need from me? I want to listen well, but it's not always easy for me. And, I think for some, it may be particularly hard with loved ones or others you see every day, because the times when you're trying to listen aren't usually special appointments meant specifically for having a conversation. It's not like those times when you haven't seen someone in a while -- when you are really, truly interested in catching up and learning about what the other has been doing since you last met. In many cases, it's easier to listen well to people you see less often. With those you see everyday (or regularly in some way), you've probably heard what they've said before. You may know already how they'll react if you say x or y, so you may not even try to give input. With people you're really close to, listening requires patience. It takes discipline. It's hard sometimes to want to make the effort to stop what you're doing, look the person in the eye, and listen. In this modern world of cell phones, text messaging, email, and chat, we may find that it's easier to communicate with others without eye contact -- that having multiple conversations alleviates the need to be patient with one particular person. And, with some, it may be possible to have a good relationship entirely devoid of physical proximity for a long time. Technology is opening up the possibilities of many diverse communication styles. And, I think there are good things about that. On that note, how *is* listening different when you're not in the same room with the person you're communicating with? Are you really able to communicate as intimately and as effectively when you're not physically together with someone? And, on that same note, what if you're together but not making eye contact, not paying attention? Is it the same as not being in the room at all? I have been thinking about how teaching has been a real challenge for my listening skills and patience. My ears are acutely tuned in for musical errors, but there is so much more to teaching lessons. Listening to students to accurately hear what their questions are, what their goals are, what their worries are, etc. takes much skill and effort. (Knowing what the answers are is another story!) I can easily diagnose a musical problem without looking into the eyes of my student, but I don't think I could ever understand the larger issues and what they really need if we didn't make eye contact.

Listening is an act of love because it requires discipline and takes effort. To really pay attention and really listen to someone is a rarity in this modern world. It could be the greatest gift you give to someone today.


Anonymous said...

Hi Vana,

If you want to hear the show you were talking about, visit:
NPR “StoryCorps: Listening is an Act of Love”

Steph said...

Great post, Pam.

I have an aunt who gets obsessed with every self-help or new age-y trend that passes through town--like, so obsessed she goes to multiple workshops on whatever said thing is and then tries to convert the whole family and everyone she knows. (Right now it's macrobiotics.) A while ago it was "listening." She went to workshops on "listening." She tried to start a nonprofit organization called "The Listening Tree," which went nowhere because no one knew what the heck she was on about.

The joke is that my aunt does not do anything of the things you discuss in this post, ever. She dominates all conversations and social situations and lives in perpetual dissatisfaction because she can't manipulate people to behave the way she wants them to. She's been trained to look deep into your eyes and nod sympathetically while you're speaking, but it's the fakest thing you've ever seen--whatever comes out of her mouth next always indicates she hasn't heard a word. It's like she's learned the form of listening but never understood the substance. She's such a lonely, tragic case--no one knows how to connect with her. I guess she's never understood the connection between love and listening.

Jake said...

Wow, Steph, you really sank the hammer into the nail Pam found. Your story about your aunt resonates so strongly with me, and it's something I've been thinking a lot about lately, particularly in faith communities. My experience is that for how ever much "listening" and "loving" these people are doing, it's essentially a selfish act, where true love embodies selflessness.

As to the questions you raise, Pam, I really don't think you can get as close without that eye contact. For how marvelous it is to be in touch with far-flung friends, I've never felt the kind of healing intimacy that being in the same presence with another brings. We are creatures of spirit and breath and light, and those are all such ephemeral phases of existence, we need to immerse ourselves in them in order to listen, and love.

andre said...

Thank you Pam. Thank you. Please don't stop writing the truths to your most wonderful self.

There are many types of intimacy for me. . many types of friendship. The physical presence of someone is not necessary for me to feel close to them. I feel close to people when I write. . sometimes, and with some people, that's the best way for me to share myself.

So here's to listening! Here's to compassion! Here's to forgiveness! Here's to trying! If one needs a tradition, how about toasting some sparkling cranberry juice to *that* every third Thursday of the month?!

Wishing you and loved ones great good.