David Irsay knows a lot about listening. StoryCorps, the organization he created, has recorded over 60,000 conversations, mostly of family members talking with each other about the moments of their lives. Thousands are on waiting lists to be recorded.
“Listening,” says Irsay, “is an act of love.”
In today’s noisy, distracted, conflicted world I would say listening is also an act of sanity. That’s especially true in this political year when voices are loud and contentious, even mean, with months of campaigning are yet to come.
Here’s a proposal: could there be one debate with the candidates required to listen to each other – without interruption – and then repeat back accurately what they have heard before they respond? I’d like to cast a vote for someone who knows how to listen – even to those who disagree. That’s not likely to happen, but we can at least listen on a personal level.
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When I was a boy I was forced to listen. My mother punished me with long, interminable lectures. I escaped by letting my mind wander. So I’ve I had to learn to pay attention, really to listen. Just ask my wife! When I was traveling a lot I asked Jeanie what she most wanted. “To be home when you’re home.”
Listening may be especially hard with the ones we live with. Social media hasn’t helped. So often at a restaurant I see couples – old or young – peering at their iPhones and seldom talking to each other. As columnist Tom Friedman says, “We are paying constant partial attention.”
But how much we miss when we don’t really listen, not only to each other, but to God.
The Bible is filled with admonitions to listen. “Hear, O Israel ….” God says to his people. “This is my beloved son, listen to him,” God said about Jesus. Jesus himself said “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” Yet even our churches can be so busy that there is seldom time allowed – except with our Quaker friends – just to be quiet and listen.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian martyred by Hitler, understood the importance of listening. “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to His word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”
I have found it vital at the start of each day to listen, to be quiet for ten minutes. Often I recall the words of Isaiah. “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” After I have listened to my own heart and thoughts, and to God’s inner voice of love, I am hopefully more prepared to listen to those around.
Dan Rather asked Mother Teresa in an interview what she said during her prayers.
“I listen” she said. “Well, then,” asked Rather, “What does God say to you?” And she said, “He listens.”
Listening is indeed an act of love. When you’ve finished reading this, why not put your paper down, or turn away from your screen, and – for the next five minutes – just listen. You might help start a listening revolution.
Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.