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.”
Today, I want to lift up the caregivers. Whether for an aging parent, ailing spouse, struggling child, or young grandchildren, or all or some of these together. It takes a good person to care and do their best to help.
Rosalyn Carter made this insight:
There are only four kinds of people in the world: Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers. And those who will need a caregiver.
We are all interconnected. We all will experience a time when we need help and times when we can offer help. It is a blessing to care about others and to let others care for us. Caring is at the heart of every good thing done in the world.
So, to the caregivers: may God bless you. Your work is making a better world.
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.
When I was a girl, text books used the term ‘melting pot’ to describe America as if everyone were thrown into one big pot and all the differences were boiled out, with America becoming just one big homogenous pot of glop. But better metaphors have popped up in the years since. Such as a salad bowl:
We don’t need a melting pot in this country, folks. We need a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, you put in the different things. You want the vegetables – the lettuce, the cucumbers, the onions, the green peppers – to maintain their identity. You appreciate differences.
But perhaps my favorite is Jimmy Carter’s:
We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.
I love the idea of a mosaic to define America—beauty in all the bits and pieces, each a small distinct individual unit but also a necessary part of a larger picture.
No matter how you describe it, America at its best, living up to its ideals, is stronger because of its diversity, the unique perspectives, the mix of voices, backgrounds, cultures, and traditions.
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.
What is hope, really, but a persistent insistence that things can be better, that there is more to it, that the final answers are yet to be revealed. Emily Dickinson describes hope as
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.”
And this feels right. Hope sits there perched, singing, warming our souls and keeping us fed. A wordless song because we may not even have the ability to put our emotions into words or know what it is we hope for. And this is a positive, persistent hope, but somewhat passive, waiting.
And yet, we know, too, that hope gets its fingernails dirty because while hope sits on the periphery expectant, it can also be in the fray fighting for a better world. That kind of hope is captured by Matthew @CrowsFault:
“People speak of hope as if it is this delicate ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.”
And this, too, seems true. Hope keeps our souls fed but also prompts our entering the arena, helping us to do the hard work to make a better world for all.
Let 2023 be a year of hope, perched and singing to our souls, but also inching us forward to do the hard work, offering our time and talents, to bring about a better today.
John Lewis was an American hero. His whole life was a testament to fighting the good fight and trying to make the world a better, more egalitarian place even in the most dire of circumstances. Today, he is laid to rest, but he left us words, every one ringing with truth, to give us light and help us find our way without him:
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
“That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.
“Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.
“Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
May his words hold true in our hearts, and let us live up to the example he set. Let us go forward in the spirit of peace with everlasting love as our guide. Let this be our solemn vow. Now is the time.
So much of life feels like it is beyond our ability to understand. Philosophers and theologians can argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or whether our futures are predestined. Or, even, whether God is dead, or, for that matter, ever lived, or, if alive, plays any hand in the events of the day.
Where is God when we suffer or when the whole world suffers? Is there any comfort in the argument that suffering happens because God gives us free will so has to let the natural consequences of things we’ve set in motion happen? That just kind of sucks, particularly when we are the well-behaved kids kept in at recess because of the misbehavior of some lone miscreant. What kind of global sense of the divine is that? Where is the comfort?
And, yet, there are moments, aren’t there? Moments when things fall into place, and we see the interconnection of living things, and feel lost in the mystery but at home there, too? Moments that sweep us into awe and gratitude and marvel? Moments where we can see the divine in the creation? In each other? Moments when we wonder how we got so lucky to be here, now, in this place and time, with these former strangers now beloved, with this life to live and all the options that offers?
We can look back at our lives and recognize the little junction points when we took a turn or met someone who became precious to us. A coincidence that we were both there in that same place and time. A coincidence that we got to talking and felt a connection, so kept talking, until that stranger became now a friend. Or a coincidence that led us to make a choice that brought us on a path to greater insight, understanding, and communion. What explains that? Those little coincidences that led us to the lives we have?
Lenny Duncan calls those coincidences ‘God staying anonymous’, and perhaps that is comforting. Perhaps the notion of a benevolent God putting people and experiences in our path to lead us forward gives us a sense of hope. Perhaps that is God working to draw us close. Perhaps it is our job to keep those flames of hope burning.
Duncan explains: “Church, I love you because you are the answer to the question ‘Is God real?’ You are the resounding yes thundering in our hearts. You are the triumphant roar affirming that God is real, powerful, and still able to perform miracles, here and now. In this time in our history, when the world seems like it is on the precipice, you are the gentle hymn that will pull us back from the abyss. You, Church, are the resounding call the entire world is bending its ear to hear as the first straining notes float over the mountaintop. You are slowly beginning to look at these hard truths, more and more each day. You are the dance of providence that lays itself out as series of coincidences, bringing even the least likely into communion with the divine. But we know coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous. It’s our job to point out that God is the agent of change we all experience.”
And in any crisis, there will be people who step up out of a sense of the greater good and many of those suffering will tell you that God was there with them in that suffering, not from afar as if on a cloud looking down, but right there in their very fiber, in their own breath and the beating of their heart. God with us. Emmanuel. Not just in the coincidences, though certainly there, but in it all. And even when things are well beyond our comprehension and the complexities of the universe and even our own lives confound us, that is comforting. Emmanuel.
We are each called to new challenges today. To make a difference, to protect the community, to keep our hope alive. Over the last few weeks, we have seen stories of both tremendous generosity and simple acts of kindness. And of compassion and resolve from leaders such as this from Queen Elizabeth.
As we move forward, Queen Elizabeth’s challenge to act in a way which will make us proud years from now rings true. How we respond to these times defines us. Consider the acts of this little boy working to secure PPE for his local hospital.