Years ago my oldest child, who was in kindergarten or first grade at the time, came home from school and told me that he heard one of his classmates use the “S” word. I was like, “Ah, ‘S’ word! Not this soon!” Then I asked him what the “S” word was and ensured him that he wouldn’t get in trouble for saying it to me in this context. With a little trepidation, he said, “You know, daddy: ‘shut up’!” Shut up was the “S” word. I exhaled and shook my head, gave him a big hug, and said, “Yep, that’s a bad word. It’s never nice to say that to someone, is it?” I’m not sure if we ever told him that this phrase was a bad word or whether he realized at an early age that it was used in a harsh manner. Either from parental advice or childhood intuition, he knew that it was the “S” word — something he shouldn’t say to someone else.
Many of us teach our kids what words and actions are appropriate and inappropriate for society, but at what age is it appropriate to use inappropriate words? I’m no saint in my language, but our society has forgotten how to talk to each other. Civil discourse seems to be a concept in a bygone society. It is certainly easier and more comfortable in our current cultural environment to tell someone with whom you disagree to shut up than it is to actually listen to them and take what they say seriously. We have this behavior modeled for us with presidential candidates who are competing to be the ruler of the free world. Everyone is feeling the sting of this rhetoric and so many feel like they are being ostracized rather than heard.
What if we listened? What if we refused to say the “S” word and listened? What if we listened to our political, theological, cultural, etc. opponents and actually paid attention to what they were saying? And maybe we should do some of the harder work and not just listen to what they are saying but try to truly understand why they are saying it. And I don’t mean that we should listen closely so that we can exercise our self-righteousness and exert our “correct” opinion when it is our turn to talk. That’s how we debate; that’s not how we care for each other.
When I was the pastor at Wilton Baptist Church we had an intern from Yale Divinity School, who taught me a lot about listening. The Rev. Jenny Clamon is one of the most active listeners I have ever known. Her capacity to listen is that great intersection between raw personality and really good theological education. She came into my office one day and I sat down behind my desk to talk with her. She laughed at me and told me that she learned in her pastoral care classes that pastors weren’t supposed to sit behind their desk when meeting with people! Obviously she had better teachers than I did in seminary. It was a great lesson for me to learn, and one of the best reasons to have an internship program — I learned so much from all those students! The desk creates a barrier and hierarchy that isn’t conducive to making people feel esteemed and important. Not long after that I rearranged my office so that my desk faced the wall and it opened my office up to everyone. I felt closer to the people who would come into my office because there wasn’t this big barrier between us. It was easier for me to listen to them, and it was easier for them to hear me.
Removing obstacles from our lives that make it more difficult for us to listen is a good exercise, but some of those obstacles are completely invisible to us — like a big honking executive desk in the middle of the room. Once these things are out of the way and we can truly hear our interlocutor, then we engage humanely. We give them the value that they deserve by virtue of the fact that they are human beings just like us when we listen. They know when we are really listening. We know when someone is really listening to us. Listening creates a space for us to have empathy for the other even when we disagree with them.
And listening is not about winning and losing. Listening as a strategy or tactic to win an argument is not listening. It is simply being quiet long enough for the other to talk — which would still be an improvement to our current political discourse. I think this is a root problem to many of the issues we are having in our country right now. People do not feel as if they are being heard, and therefore, they do not feel valued, which makes them angry. That anger, then, is poured out on everyone.
With social media being so omnipresent in our culture, there is an interesting paradox. Individuals have unprecedented capacity to communicate publicly to a global audience. If a post goes viral, it’s because millions of people around the world are accessing it. In spite of this unprecedented capacity for voice, many people feel as if they are not being heard.
So, how do we listen? One way may be to not return insult for insult or evil for evil. The good old “two wrongs don’t make a right” applies and is still true. As things stand in our country, we should probably expect for people to disagree with us — and sometimes disagree in big ways. I have been writing this column for a while now and there have been some really nice responses, but there has been some venom, too. I wonder what is behind the anonymous anger. How can we peel back the layers of vitriol in order to find the real thing that’s hurting? Being conscious of the other human being as a human being no matter how much they may be shouting at us could also go a long way to restore our capacity to listen to each other. May be we should just shut up and listen.