The days before Christmas can be frantic. We sometimes find our tempers short, our tongues loose, and our wits frayed. We think of Christmas as something in the future, speeding toward us, that we need to hurry around and prepare for so that we can enjoy His coming. But a birthday, like Christmas, is a celebration of something that has already happened. And, in the case of Christmas, it is a celebration of a whole new world order that is here. We are His now, not just at Christmas. We need to shine with His love now and everyday. Particularly when the world is harried. We need to reflect the joy and peace that comes with knowing that love conquers all.
What does it take to prevent a country fracturing from disagreements and divisions? Perhaps it is the same thing that keeps any relationship from severing. First, a deep desire for reconciliation. A laying down of arms. A recognition that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that there is value and growth in working things out. Next, perhaps would be a deep humility, a recognition that one side doesn’t have all the answers while the other is ignorant and foolish, but an understanding that both sides have stories to tell and an eagerness to be heard. And finally, perhaps would come respect. Each side coming together voluntarily, knowing their future strength is in union rather than destruction.
If you look for thorns, you’ll see thorns. If you look for love, you’ll see it all around you. And if you look for opportunities to make a difference, to shower people with love, and to take a stand for all that is good and right in the world, those opportunities will be there.
Listening, truly listening–without an agenda, without interrupting, without offering solutions or fixes, without criticism or judgment–is a rare thing. But it is vital to relationships. And it is a gift to be in a position to listen. Someone is trusting you with their story, their feelings, their hurts and hopes. That is precious. How can we best listen to each other?
In this thoughtful article, Martha Caldwell offers advise for listening compassionately in the classroom that really applies well to any situation. As a compassionate environment transforms a classroom, it too transforms any relationship. Consider her suggestions:
1. Be fully present. We bear witness to someone’s felt experience by giving them our complete and undivided attention. Paying full attention when someone is speaking creates safety and focus in the classroom. Compassionate listeners maintain complete silence and pay attention not only to words they hear, but also to facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, noticing even the silences between words.
2. Know listening is enough. Listening with deep attention involves a calm, relaxed state of mind, free of the desire to “fix” someone or solve their problems for them. It does not involve giving advice or intervening in any way. If our minds are busy coming up with solutions for the speaker, we fail to truly listen.
3. Respond with acceptance. Deep listeners are motivated by the desire to understand how others feel and how their experiences have affected them. Their genuine interest and heartfelt concern make it safe for others to share their vulnerabilities because they sense that what they say will be received without judgement.
4. Understand conflict as part of real-life learning. A learning community in which people are encouraged to be honest and express how they feel involves a degree of risk. Conflict may arise. Sometimes this happens, and working through difficult feelings may take time. However, when we stay connected and stick with the process, conflict can be a catalyst for positive change. When conflict can be resolved, relationships often become stronger.
5. Ask authentic questions to learn more. By asking open-ended questions like “What was that like for you?,” “Can you tell me more about that?,” or “What were you experiencing?,” compassionate listeners guide speakers to share more deeply. These questions are motivated by the desire to honestly learn more (as opposed to reinforcing preconceived notions). If they think they may not have understood something, listeners can repeat back what they think they heard and ask for clarification. “Did I hear that right?”
6. Be gentle with yourself. Deep listening involves compassion for yourself as well as for others. Accept yourself and your internal feeling responses without judgement. Allow yourself time to process and learn.
7. Treat the candidness of others as a gift. Honor the trust others have placed in you and keep what you hear confidential.
Today, listen deeply and be grateful that someone is trusting you with their story.
In this increasingly polarized world, how do we come together to solve the very real challenges we are facing? If conversations with those who disagree lead to broken relationships rather than common ground, how will we work together?
In this insightful article, Kern Beare offers some insights:
Prioritize the relationship over being right. Research shows that our fight/flee/freeze survival drive is often triggered when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. Research also shows that when that happens, we lose a host of cognitive capacities that are at the heart of being human, including empathy, moral reasoning and even intuition. Bereft of these capacities, the conversation — and sometimes the relationship itself — typically comes to an unsatisfying and even ugly end.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Evidence abounds that differences in values, attitudes, and beliefs become far less significant when a deeper basis of relationship is formed — especially when it’s rooted in our common humanity. [It’s important to] learn strategies for building such relationships, in turn strengthening the critical capacities you need for creative engagement.
See beyond your story. Most of us have the (often unconscious) assumption that our “story” — the particular set of life experiences from which we derive our sense of self — is the totality of who we are. This merging of “self” and “story” explains one of the most surprising findings of neurobiology: threats to our story-self — to our values, attitudes and beliefs — activate the same parts of our brain as threats to our physical self, triggering our fight, flee, or freeze reactions. When this happens, simmering disagreements can quickly become combustible.
At the same time, we’re learning that our identity encompasses far more than our story. Studies show that a more expanded sense of self emerges when we “switch off” our story-self, unleashing a host of positive emotions and attributes. These include joy, compassion, gratitude, flexibility, creativity and receptivity to new ideas — all of which counteract our survival drive instinct. [Learning] more about this “expanded self” [can help us] to access its capacities.
Transform resistance into response. Resistance is our early-warning system that our survival drive is beginning to kick into gear. When we’re in resistance, our attention narrows, our heart rate increases, and our stress levels rise — all signals of an emerging fight, flee, or freeze reaction. The neuropsychology of resistance [helps inform] why transforming our resistance into response strengthens our cognitive capacities, and how the brain has evolved to actually help us undergo this transformative process.
Preface to the book: Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together by Kern Beare
Perhaps these strategies can change the thermostat in our conversations and help us reach a place where we can work together to solve the problems ahead.
Loneliness is an epidemic. That heart to heart connection with others, our world, our communities is lost as we race from one To Do to the next. Superficial greetings take the place of deep conversation, and we substitute more for better.
When was the last time you felt truly heard by another person–not heard so they could diagnose you or give you instructions for how to do better–but heard as though someone paused to notice the real you, the deep down you?
When was the last time you paused to consider another person, not as a means to an end on your own journey, but as a person with their own dreams and heart desires, their own wants and needs, their own untold story hoping to be heard?
When was the last time you paused to consider the world around you, from the beauty of nature to the miracle of your own next breath?
Perhaps our loneliness epidemic would be eased if we all were to slow down and notice each other, pause to realize we are here for each other, and be vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to see and be seen.
Mary Oliver’s poems open us in so many ways– to nature, to each other, to our own hidden places. Perhaps this one on loneliness will speak to you today:
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider the orderliness of the world. Notice something you have never noticed before,
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain, shaking the water-sparks from its wings.
Let grief be your sister, she will whether or not. Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also, like the diligent leaves.
A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away. Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.
In the glare of your mind, be modest. And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.
Live with the beetle, and the wind.
~ Mary Oliver ~
From Shari: what have you noticed today that helps you feel connected?
We humans are an inventive bunch. When confronted with limitations, we’ve always found a way to persevere. Communication was once limited to face to face, but then we thought up written alphabets, mail, books, telephone and telegraph, radio, TV, internet, and now Zoom.
We’ve adopted new virtual ways to hold meetings, teach class, and stay connected. We persevere, and most important, we always look for ways to help, using the gifts we have and perhaps stretching them to fit the limitations of our new normal.
As we make our way through this new normal, rather than mourn the lost way we used to connect, perhaps now is the time to adapt and stretch to fit our present reality. How can we be present for each other, particularly for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, in a way that works right now today?
From Shari: what are some new ways of doing things that you’ve found helpful in our current world?
For me, Zoom has been a godsend. I’ve been able to attend a virtual reunion, participate in book clubs, stay connected with friends, and make author visits to schools all while maintaining appropriate social distance. I’ve also found I’m writing more snail mail.
If one of your friends were struggling with the problems you are facing right now, what words would you offer in support? Would you call them names, berate them, remind them of all the other times they messed up just like this and how, honestly, can they ever expect to get anything right, ever?
Probably not. Right? But often this is the way we talk to ourselves. We replay all our other mistakes in our minds, call ourselves stupid, sink into our shells scared to face the world.
But why do we do this? If the words we would offer our friend are what we think would help, why are we so reticent to speak kind encouraging words to ourselves? Maybe today is a good day to try a different approach.
Be a kind friend to yourself. Offer yourself words of support and encouragement. Focus on all the many times you got things right. Tell yourself the truth: you are precious and beloved.
From Shari: These are hard times. For many of us, these are the hardest times we’ve been through.
What are some of the things that are helping you deal with the stress? What are some ways you’ve been able to help others?
In challenging times, there are always bright moments of light to lift us up. People singing from balconies out onto deserted streets in Italy, others joining together to amplify the voices of the unheard, and, in one of the most delightful examples, an out of work sports color commentator putting his talents to use to give people a glimmer of cheer during dark times. Sidelined by the coronavirus and the consequent shut down of sports, Andrew Cotter has been making videos providing the color commentary for his two dogs’ adventures. Meet Olive and Mabel as you make way for a bit of delight:
All we face now can feel overwhelming. It’s as if everywhere you turn, there is another challenge and another threat. And yet, even if the midst of all that is wrong, there are opportunities to shine the light, to be a voice for good, and to support others. Yes, it looks bleak now, but we are still here to do some good:
“Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say ‘It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.’” — Joanna Macy