Reflection 269: Listening

May 31, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

We talk a lot about free speech, but hear little about free listening. Yet listening to others is the secret to productive cooperation and engagement. Much talk is about projecting personal opinions onto others. How productive is that? It’s a loser’s game, a cheap substitute for the hard work of developing respect and open mindedness, both of which take listening to what others have learned from their personal experience—and that is bound to be different from what we have learned on our own.

Listening solely to yourself means listening to one person out of seven billion unique individuals. Opening yourself to all those others expands the pool of potential learning, insight, and understanding to an almost infinite degree. Imagine having a staff of advisors so large and so wise. But no, instead of learning what we can, we keep spouting the same stale beliefs handed down through the generations as if they were universal truth itself, suggesting that we have known the answers all along and have no need to listen to those who differ from us.

The wise man on his mountain pinnacle has made every mistake in the book of life, and yet always has one more angle he hasn’t tried, which he is glad to share with us lowlanders as if it were the distillation of universal truth—which it isn’t because it’s the one mistake he hasn’t made up till now. Where are modesty and humility when we need them most?, those priceless attributes of true wisdom. We tell children to keep their mouths shut and ears open, but that’s good advice for grownups as well—to stop talking so we can cock our ears and start listening.

Listening entails opening the inner world in which we live to others. Which doesn’t happen automatically by simply being in their presence. It requires inviting them in. Opening our selves to them. Which may prove dangerous if we let them get too close. But all new learning is dangerous because it forces us to grow—as the birch must rip its own bark in becoming larger.

If we keep to our inner bastions to stay safe, where’s the adventure in that? Where’s the opportunity for discovery, excitement, or friendship? For growing into greater understanding? Fear of what we might expose ourselves to leads us to keep to ourselves in order to preserve who we are without thinking who we might become if we let down our guard.

Listening is the secret to effective engagements with others. It lets them be themselves while we are ourselves. Putting those two together is the adventure of a lifetime. We never know what will happen—except that we will be larger as a result. As I grew larger last night while listening to thunder roll through the hills of Bar Harbor, thunder that spoke to me in emphatic phrases of deep, rumbling complexity. I’d never heard sounds like that before, or never let myself hear them. But there they were, asking me to rise to their level of expression and understanding. I can’t tell you what I learned because it was wholly nonverbal. But those earth sounds were profound, I could tell. Earth was trying to tell me something about how insignificant I am among its wonders, how ignorant I am in claiming to know what I think I know but am surely wrong. Yes, it’s risky listening to such voices. But, I would add, also necessary. Why else are we here?

My personal school of engagement assigns me to listen to thunder as closely as I listen to song sparrows and eagles, to loons and hermit thrushes. To quaking aspen, lapping waves, and sleeping babies. Ears are given us to actively engage our surroundings by forming sensory impressions. Which we recognize as instances of one conceptual category or another, and then fit into an appropriate compartment within our grand field of universal understanding, our personal version of the way of the world as taught through personal experience.

I wish I could say I have treasured my ears as gateways to my smattering of world understanding, but in fact I have carelessly abused them from time to time by listening to the likes of gunshots and internal combustion engines, so, since age forty, my ears have been clanging (more than ringing) ceaselessly for some thirty-nine years—just about half my life. Every voice must compete with that distraction if I am to add it to my repertory of sounds heard. For this I can blame no one but myself. I take full responsibility for this impairment, and the regrets that go with it.

My eyes, too, are not what they were. Since I was a child, I have immensely enjoyed the gift of eyesight, and celebrated it through photography, which allows me to focus carefully on a great many visual wonders. But like my camera itself, which broke down last week and no longer works, my eyesight is perturbed by glare from above, and astigmatism presents me with twin images of even Jupiter’s sparkling moons. My computer hard drives are filled to the last digit with images, serving as a kind of visual autobiography of things I have witnessed during my life—a rough opus composed of gifts received through my eyes.

My listening more aptly applies to sounds people have made in my presence. I have been calibrated by the culture I grew up in to find meaningful those sounds expressed in English, so it is those I pay particular attention to and find great joy in hearing and comprehending as I manage to do. Including my own utterances in response to the sounds others make as I strive to get the most meaning into fewest words for clarity’s sake. Or try to do even though I rarely succeed, more often spouting the usual garble of my authentic inner voice.

Indeed, I truly believe that listening to others is founded on the fine art of listening to oneself. Or can be a fine art if we take care to make sure that what we actually say represents our core feelings and values at the moment. That is, if we use speech to be who we are rather than as a means of charming others into believing what we want them to believe about us.

Personally, I aspire to sing with the simple eloquence of a hermit thrush by actively paying attention to how such birds run the rills that they do. Or to deliver myself like thunder when the situation demands such a voice by studying over and again the richness and tonality of that sound in the original. That is, I learn to talk by listening to the range of sounds I am exposed to, and then choosing from among them the voice I find most apt to the occasion I find myself in.

Last evening I spoke at a hearing on the future management of resources in Taunton Bay, employing the diction I had learned by listening to the bay itself for much of my life. Today at noon I will present a Peace Award to a senior about to graduate from my local high school, relying on the voice of nonviolent engagement I have acquired through long commitment to the Quaker persuasion. As we listen, so do we consider, and then speak. That’s where words come from—the care with which we listen to the voices of every sort around us throughout or lives.

Listening is a primary form of engagement that bestows gifts on us by opening us to the options we have in being ourselves on specific occasions so that when our turn comes to speak, the words we need to say are available in the repertory of sounds we have found personally arousing and meaningful.

Do you hear me? Or is the ringing in your ears too loud so all that you can hear is yourself? In that case, take up not bird-watching but bird-listening. Explore what is possible and you will find a voice that will carry what it is you want to say.

That’s it for today. As always, I remain y’r friend. –Steve

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