These days there is a lot of noise—everyone has a soapbox—but I wonder how much is really heard. This article explores the problem of autobiographical listening, listening with the hope of injecting a story about yourself into the mix. There are levels to this. The matcher, who always has a similar vacation or achievement to switch the conversation to. The topper who has an even better vacation or achievement to turn the conversation to. And the outright conversation narcissist where really all parts of the conversation somehow turn on him.
But if our goal is connection, we really need to learn how to better listen:
“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”
Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Practice listening to understand. Avoid autobiographical listening:
“When we fail to listen from the other person’s perspective, we are listening through our own lens and tend to pass more judgments compared to simply listening,” Reigstad added. “There are four types of autobiographical listening ― evaluate, probe, advise and interpret. These responses tend to have us asking questions based on our experiences, offering advice to fix the problem and so on. It’s important to resist the urge and allow the other person to speak.”
We’ve always done it this way. Have you heard this? Said it? Maybe it’s time to look at ‘it’ with fresh eyes.
The same is true for the way we act, think, believe. Take a look. Is there anything there that is worth a reconsideration?
As we age, it’s easy to fall into ruts, easy to believe our way is the right way, easy to assume any problems are the other person’s fault.
Self-reflection, hard, soul-deep reflection, the kind of reflection that might be filled with regret and tears and epiphanies and apologies, is a good tune-up for our inner selves. Without it, there will be no progress.
One of the lessons from my elementary school days that still stands out in memory was flower dissection day. I was astonished with the intricacy in a flower. Where before I saw just a flower, now I saw intricate systems for reproduction, male and female organs, color and smell to attract pollinators, a whole interconnection of systems. And this was just what I could see with my naked eye. Later I would discover the microscopic diversity and complexity of plant life. But then as a little 8 year old girl, I was gobsmacked with the complexity of it all.
Isn’t it all miraculous?
These days I need to stop and remember to let my much older self still stand in awe of the complexities of life. The interconnectedness of creation in all its abundance, from the dung beetle pushing its treasured clomp up a hill backwards with its hind feet, to the elements swirling together in a once in a generation storm.
Standing in awe requires both decentering ourselves and paying attention, absorbing both the tiniest details and the grand ones, and realizing our small place in the midst of it all. And even we humans are an amazing complexity of systems and organisms functioning together to keep us alive, made up of around 30 trillion human cells, and 39 trillion non-human microbial cells living on and in us. Our own body is essentially made up of many separate ecosystems. It is staggering.
A case from my early days as a lawyer still bothers me. It wasn’t even my case, just one in our firm, handled, in my opinion, wrong. Not wrong, perhaps, in the legal sense, but wrong in the great moral cosmic picture of things we know to be true sense. I think of it periodically. In the matter, a little girl wearing a bright red sweater crossed in an intersection against the light and was killed by an oncoming car. On appeal from the substantial wrongful death verdict, my colleague argued that the judgment was too high because this little girl wasn’t particularly special. She wasn’t a violin prodigy, for instance, or a young movie star. She didn’t make any money or show any unique promise to do so. She was just a girl, admittedly beloved by her family, but her death might, in fact, save the parents money, what with no need now to support her or send her to college or buy her a stuffed animal for her birthday.
I thought of this case when I read about a man released from prison this week after decades in jail when the judge concluded there was substantial evidence of his innocence of a murder. Not innocence in general, I suppose, because he admits to selling drugs at the time of the killing. But innocence of murder. What is this man’s life worth? How do you value it? What is the value of the students’ lives struck down recently at a college shooting, or at a celebration, or an elementary school? How do we value these lives lost in an ever-increasingly violent society? What of the lives lost in a devastating earthquake? Do we somehow weigh lives against another, concluding some are more valuable than others? Do we consider the monetary value of each life, as my colleague argued? Have we somehow gotten to a place where the tragic loss of life from violence is normal?
Have we lost something about the ‘inestimable value’ of human life?
I came across this poem offered up in the face of unceasing violence. It spoke to me in way that got behind my buffers and filters, and approached what is true.
Some of my friends and I are noticing our interests shift these days. This tweet sums up the phenomenon perfectly.
And it’s not just birds, but the weather, the garden, the laugh of a child. The little moments bear a new luster. And of course it makes sense. As our lives are rushing by in our younger years, the little things can get lost. We always will have the time to stop and look, to smell the roses, we reason, so we put it off. But as we feel our time here becoming more finite, our attention hones. We pause. We marvel. We are constantly astonished.
As it turns out, this experience isn’t so much a reflection of our age as it is our perception of time. When we feel time vast, spreading out before us, our focal point is on the future, but when we feel a possible end to our time here, our attention draws close and we appreciate the little things. So even someone young facing death will have this urge to stop and soak in the little things.
In his book, Being Mortal; Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande summarizes research on this experience:
“…how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,” “the sky is the limit,” and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future, you seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your networks of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid- achievement, creativity, and other attributes of ‘self-actualization,” but as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
But our ‘knowledge’ of the time we have is far from certain. Sometimes our belief we will always have another day keeps us from appreciating the days we have. Practices like mindfulness and meditation, reading poetry, help ground us in the present so we can capture those moments, but it’s difficult to keep our own mortality enough in our consciousness to really grasp the preciousness of each moment.
In the play, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, the lead character Emily, a young woman who loses her life early in childbirth, is given the opportunity to revisit one day in her life, and she sees it all with new eyes:
Emily: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on.It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute? Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some. Emily: I’m ready to go back.”
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
Today is that day, a day for us to realize life while we’re living it, every, every minute as much and as best as we can.
There are as many ways to pray as there are people praying. But what is it, exactly? Maybe it’s easier to answer what it isn’t: a flamboyant show, a chance to pose and preen publicly, a subterfuge, a droning recitation of memorized but not considered words.
What prayer actually is, though, is more complicated: a bridge between ourselves and the mysterious, a chance to become small, and yet fully individual, in a vastness, an experience of awe. Mary Oliver’s definition above in her poem Praying is lovely: a doorway into thanks. Consider the whole poem:
It doesn’t have to be
The blue iris, it could be
Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
Small stones; just
Pay attention, then patch
A few words together and don’t try
To make them elaborate,
This isn’t a contest but the doorway
Into thanks, and a silence in
Which another voice may speak.
Pay attention; see the beauty around you; give thanks. Rinse and repeat.
When I was young, I had the book Happiness is a Warm Puppy by Charles Schulz. I was remembering it lately with all the charming little moments it caught:
Each page captures a delightful, sweet, innocent, but meaningful, moment in the life of a child. Each attempting to capture that ineffable notion of happiness. I thought it would be fun to start collecting my own when I feel that surge of happiness, that feeling that all is right in the world, and I’m incredibly lucky and content.
Here are a couple of mine:
The finches discovering their feeder.
The cat keeping you company while you work.
Being unable to move because the cat picked your lap.
And the list goes on. We each have moments that fill us with happiness and wonder. They slip away quickly because they’re ephemeral. But if we capture them somehow, in a gratitude journal, with a photo album, a list, we can turn to them later and smile. These are our ‘moments’
Schulz recognized that for each of of us, those moments will be unique and personal.
What are some of yours? If you feel comfortable doing so, I would love it if you shared them.
The Rose Parade is always a joyous start to the new year, the pageantry, the vivid colors, the community. The floats are huge, once nearly 100 feet tall. (Disney 2004). Every inch must be covered with something organic—mostly flowers, of course, but also oatmeal, potatoes, beans, seeds, and so on. The illusions created are remarkable. Look at the bicycles in the photo above (Kaiser 2023). Every detail created out of flowers and organic material. You think you’re looking at bicycles, but really you’re looking at a masterful combination of organic material:
The pink and yellow bikes are made from cut straw flowers confetti, while the blue bike is made from blue statice. The black bike tires are made from onion seeds and the handlebars are comprised of dark lettuce seeds. Other flowers and materials used include pampas grass, banana leaf, red and pink anthurium, commadore fern, Italian ruscus, lemon leaf, and green dianthus.
In many ways, a Rose Parade float is a metaphor for life: you think you see things one way, but really everything is a combination of multitudes of factors—point of view, back story, nuance, history. Very little is as objective as we first think. This is particularly true when it comes to looking at each other. We are all a combination of life experience, history, bias, personality, filters and so on. We each bring that myriad of factors to our encounters.
Our job in everything is to look closely and pay attention, to move past assumption and bias. Jumping to hasty conclusions will get you trying to ride bicycles made of pampas grass.