Talking Ourselves Out of Listening

As a teacher, I witness thousands of interactions every day.  Conversations abound around me as teenagers struggle with navigating the social and academic landscape, attempting to understand themselves and their peers.  During these conversations, students are often grasping to get their points across as awkward silence and miscommunication block their intent.  I see them talking over one another, cutting each other off mid-sentence, and being distracted by something more interesting around them.  It has been argued that teenagers, and ourselves, have lost the art of conversation, with the influx of technology being the main culprit.  Although, this reason may contribute, there is an even greater reason as to why we are not communicating well.  One of the most important skills we can learn in order to effectively converse and communicate with one another has nothing to do with what we are saying, but involves us closing our mouths and opening our ears.

In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” the NPR host cites several different strategies and approaches to get the most out of our interactions.  Among ideas that include avoiding multitasking and pontificating, utilizing open-ended questions, and dodging repetition, is one of her most important pieces of advice, for us to listen when others speak.  Although a simple directive, it’s not quite so simple when we look at the reasons as to why we don’t listen to one another.

When we converse, anxiety tends to play a part, and we feel the pressure of expectation.  So, we tend to listen less and talk more because, let’s face it, we’d rather talk.  When we talk, we are in control and need not worry about the direction of the conversation.  We are then the center of attention and can guide the conversation towards topics in which we are interested.  When we listen, we hand over control to another, which can sometimes be uncomfortable and intimidating.  Also, because of our humanity, our egos dictate that we consistently like to promote ourselves, thus our constant need to interject our own pontifications and experiences into what others are saying.  And finally, we get distracted easily.  Our brain listens to more words than we can speak, so our mind tends to wander, thus taking more effort and energy to pay attention to someone.  Yet, if we put ourselves aside and accept humility, we can actively engage in listening to one another, gaining a deeper understanding of our lives and relationships.

Proverbs 18.13 states that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  When we do not actively listen to each other, we develop disagreements and misunderstandings.  We build unfounded resentment because we are too concerned with our own agenda.  Author Stephen Covey observed that, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.”  If we can set aside our personal needs and surrender them to others, we can truly listen to what others are saying, resulting in building stronger relationships based on truth and understanding.

We also tend to talk too much to God in prayer instead of listening to Him.  We most often pray when we have a need or a list of desires, but we don’t pray when there is nothing to say.  So, we may be telling God everything we need, but we don’t hear what God truly wants for us.  As Christians, we desire to know God, and listening helps us work towards that goal.  Film music composer John Powell said that, “A good listener truly wants to know the speaker.”  Through silence and being a good listener we grow closer to Him and align our goals towards knowing Him better.

There’s an old joke about careful listening in a marriage that goes something like this: “My wife says I never listen to her.  At least I think that’s what she said.”  Although told in jest, the humor rings true, as most of us have no idea how to really listen to one another.  This week, ask for a spirit of humility and spend more time listening than talking.  If we silence our inner selves and become humble in speech, not only before others but before God, we grow in faith, wisdom, and in our relationship with Him, finally hearing what wonderful plans He has for us.  Amen.

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Putting the Human in Humanity

As I was overhearing two people having a not-quite heated but not-quite agreeable discussion about our current president in my classroom, it was clear that even though they were not seeing eye to eye, they seemed at least open to listening to what the other was saying.  Finally, in a moment of exasperation, the non-Trump supporter explained, “I don’t understand why.  Help me to understand.” Instantly, the sentiment reverberated in the room, as everyone listening suddenly realized what we were sorely lacking: empathy.  It was a moment of clarity for that person and for all those around, as they realized that we are living in a time period where understanding is needed more so than convincing, but most are not living that way.  

Ever since that moment, I’ve been trying to get a hold of where the nation and our individual situations are headed.  I did not vote for Donald Trump, a fact that I easily admit to not as anything else other than a fact.  I merely did not agree with his views and policies and felt that he did not accurately represent me.  So, during the election process, I found my default to be one of quick judgment of him and his supporters, and since they disagreed with me, it must be their mental shortcoming.  In fact, most of the country seemed to be defaulting to that approach, which may explain why we are now so divided.  The fact is, judging and dismissing is easier than trying to understand the opposing viewpoint.  Empathy requires patience, time, and openness, all signs of humanity.

So in an attempt to bring us together, I’ve been recently trying a new approach, where when I encounter a political opinion contrary to my own, I want to know why they feel that way and how they got there.  I may not agree with their view or decision, but at least I understand them.  If our ideas of what’s best for the country don’t match, that doesn’t make either side inherently evil; it just makes them different.  It’s our intolerant reactions to one another that invites evil.

The “Serenity Prayer,” a staple wall-hanging in many Christian households, reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” With the three active requested characteristics being serenity, courage, and wisdom, they can be categorized as three traits that align with empathy and understanding, all of which fall under the same umbrella: acceptance.  In Romans 15.7, the apostle Paul encourages us to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”  Even though we rejected, persecuted, and crucified Him, Christ was still able to accept us.  Surely, we can do the same for those that merely disagree with us.  

So when I asked some Trump supporters about what they thought of the latest enacted policies, I instead pursued a line of questioning that helped me to understand why and how they could support them, not a line of defense that created intolerance and discord.  From there, I learned of the past pain and struggle that plagued them, how they grappled with disappoint and failure, and how these new ideas provided hope for them.  This approach humanized them, and I could now see why they felt that way.  In the end, I didn’t agree with their stance, but the conversation went a very different way than it could have, as I was learning to accept them and reflect His approach to others, as well.  Through this humanizing act of acceptance, we can model His example, giving others a glimpse at His glory and bringing the country closer together in the process.  Amen.

Giving God Your Full Attention

I can usually tell when my students are listening to me or not.  Their attention is usually fragmented by any number of devices or distractions that surround them on a daily basis, so I must be aware when they are listening and when they aren’t.  Often times it’s some social media-like thing that they are immersed in, or they’re lost in thought about some problem they’re facing at home or with someone they’re dating, or sometimes both.  The issue is that because of the demands placed on them in life and the social expectations they should be living up to, there is too much going on for them to participate in active listening.  Although, I can’t really point the finger much.  At home, my wife often accuses me of only hearing every third word she says, as I often get the gist of what she is saying right, if not the details.  I suppose for my students, the same can be said about me in that I just have too much going on in my life and head to actively listen sometimes.

When we want someone to actively listen to us, we sometimes ask them to look directly at us when we are speaking, in an effort to make sure that they are listening attentively.  In my class, when I am saying something important that I don’t want to have to repeat, I often times ask them to “Listen with your face” so that I can make sure they hear every word and idea that I am saying.  Perhaps committing more than just your ears to hearing is the key to actively listening.  Since more than one sense is necessary in these situations, so it can also be said of worship.  When we pray or worship God, whether on our own or together, we can and should be committing more than just our minds and ears to Him.  In Romans 12.1, Paul doesn’t limit us to only those two commitments, but feels as if we should be using as much of ourselves to glorify Him. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

Many years ago, I decided that it was not enough to just commit my voice to God in worship, but to commit as many of my senses to Him as possible.  So, when we would recite a prayer or song, I would make sure to not only speak it, but to commit my eyes to Him by reading along as well, even if I already knew the prayer or song by heart.  Additionally, I could commit my ears to Him by listening to the church body around me participating along with me in the song.  I can feel the power of His prayers and songs by touching the prayers and verses as I recite them aloud.  I could take in the smells of candles and incense, knowing that they are there to bring glory to Him.  And I can taste the communion wine and bread, remembering the sacrifice He made for me.  However, despite committing these five sense to Him, there still remains a sixth one that is most important: the heart.  We can utilize our sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch to glorify Him, but if our hearts are not for Him, then those commitments are meaningless.  It is the heart that guides our mind and actions, and without it, those senses and commitments are meaningless.  So, this week, let’s not only commit all our senses to Him, but our hearts as well, so that we can fully promise ourselves to Him in life and in spirit.  Instead of just listening with our faces, let’s listen with our hearts, too.  Amen.

Words of Change Outside of Time and Space

Years ago, I attended the New York City 26-mile marathon (as a spectator, mind you), to cheer on my good friend who was running in the race.  I planted myself around the 22-mile marker, as I assumed those last few but still far miles were what needed the most encouragement.  I watched runner after runner go by, surrounded by people shouting out inspiring words to the other struggling athletes.  Before our friend reached us, I noticed that there were several people shouting out words of encouragement to multiple people.  After weighing, and ultimately discarding, the idea that maybe these people just knew a lot of the runners, I came to the conclusion that what these onlookers were doing was reading the t-shirts of the runners for numbers and names and then shouting them out, boosting the spirits of these supposed strangers.  I smiled and thought the practice adorable, that the result was a small lift in the runners’ long struggle.  However, I severely underestimated the result, as I recently discovered for myself.  I was running a short but quick 3-miler around a nearby lake and was just entering the last mile.  I had been pushing myself, but found that I was hitting a proverbial wall.  I mindlessly glanced over to some people hanging out on an adjacent lawn, when one of them stood up, gave me a big toothy smile, and put both thumbs in the air.  I’m not really sure what happened after that, but I remember smiling back after getting a quick boost of adrenaline, and when I finished that mile, I was a good 30 seconds faster than the previous two, a huge difference in the world of running.  His well-timed, well-placed, good-natured gesture made an enormous impact in my struggle, and we’ve never even met.  It’s no secret that the Bible is filled with commands to lift up and encourage each other.  1 Thessalonians 5.11 tells us: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  Yet what many of us don’t consider is that we should encourage and lift up all people that God puts in our life, including people that we don’t even know.  This outside-of-the-box approach to Christian living is a chance for believers to take a step out in faith and give a much-needed lift to the many that struggle around us daily.  It’s a chance for Christians to affect a strong positive change in the world, developing it towards one that values kindness over opportunity.  And these interactions don’t even need to be aimed at those who, like the runners in the marathon, are clearly struggling towards their goal.  I remember a stranger who gave me a compliment on my tie in a gas station from fifteen years ago, and I still smile every time I see that tie.  His comment brought a little more lasting light into my life, and I wasn’t even in need of any at the time he delivered it.  As a result, I now tend to go out of my way now and compliment people who have clearly and purposely altered their appearance (new haircut, tattoo, piercing, hair color, whatever), even if it’s not my particular taste, because I know that every time they look in a mirror, a compliment can help them smile and accept themselves a little more than they do at that time.  If God is truly purposeful in all His decisions, then everyone you run into in your life is there for a reason.  The challenge to us is to step out of our comfort zone and try it with someone we don’t even know.  With a few words of encouragement, you can be the difference that we Christians so desire in this world, and that difference may just ripple out well beyond the two of you and that moment.  Amen.

The Hostile, Gnarled Claws of Resentment

A friend recently showed me a humorous cartoon of a sweet-faced, innocent-looking elementary school girl eating lunch while others look on and comment.  The message to the cartoon: “Once you hate someone, everything they do is offensive,” with the onlookers’ comment being “Look at this jerk eating those crackers like she owns the place.”  Obviously, the girl is just eating lunch, but the message is clear: when there’s someone we don’t like, his or her every action is questionable, every word is judged wrong, and every motive must be devious.  At one of my locales, we’ve reached a standoff between a couple of regulars, where they hate each other so much that everything they do is deemed belligerent and aggressive, despite that fact that it probably isn’t.  However, these people have such a deep-seeded aversion towards each other that they refuse to resolve it.  Watching this hostility occur, and attempting to mediate it, I found myself wondering from where this hatred came.  Unable to find it’s root cause, I continued to search and found from all involved parties that none of them had ever approached the other to confront, but instead harbored resentment and then continued onward.  One of those involved has often quoted to me this adage: “silence breeds monsters.” When we have issues with another person and merely move forward in anger without confrontation, that anger usually doesn’t go away, but instead sinks its talons into us in the form of resentment, which is what seemed to have happened here.  Just the other day, I became angry at one of these involved individuals for personal reasons.  I sat at home steaming, building him up in my mind to be a tremendous fiend.  I sought advice from someone who suggested I merely confront him.  Hesitantly (and somewhat fearfully), I called him and started off with a direct question about the matter.  What followed was an often-engaging and very satisfactory half-hour conversation where we both hung up with a better understanding of each other and the situation.  With my anger dissipated and an understanding on both sides, he worked to resolve it, complimenting me on my directness and initiative.  As such, our relationship is now stronger, as he knows that when there is an issue, I will bring it to him.  Ephesians 4.26 states: “In your anger do not sin: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”  As an often used maxim for married couples, many interpret this verse to be that they shouldn’t go to bed angry.  More than likely, the verse means that we should deal with our anger before it is too late to deal with it: the point where anger turns to resentment.  Then, we begin to despise the other person instead of not liking what it is that he or she has done or said.  When we allow that process to happen, marriages sour, friendships spoil, and coworkers turn despite the fact that these are people who will be in our lives well after the offense.  Like pouring salt onto fertile land, long-held anger poisons the relationship, and nothing can grow as a result.  Additionally, the sin then becomes doubled, as it includes not just the individual who committed the wrong, but also the wronged person, who now harbors sin against that other person.  When we are wronged or offended by another’s actions or words, nothing can be gained from holding onto that anger, and the best approach to letting it go may be to confront, as you will most likely gain an empathetic understanding of the moment in question.  By letting go of our anger through respectful confrontation, the long term gains won’t involve contempt and resentment.  Amen.

The Unruly Resistance of Truth

There are some topics that people avoid like the plague because it incites too much debate and discussion.  If you are unsure of this fact, try bringing up either religion or politics at your next family dinner.  As for me, I love to be able to challenge people’s thinking.  Being able to present a new idea or concept that reveals some aspect of the world to a group that was beforehand unaware of that information which then causes them to make a positive change in their life has always been a strong desire for me.  For that reason alone is most likely why I went into teaching, because it’s there that I have a captive audience whom I can challenge on a daily basis.  My students are somewhat used to this approach, so it was very much a surprise to me when I brought up questions of latent racism that exists in our country and was greeted with an immense amount of argument and resistance.  We were reading articles about the daily feelings and struggles of people of color, and as I continued, hands shot up, anger was induced, and many voices were heard.  Many balked at these claims and argued them to the smallest detail, most arguments stemming from the point that they themselves are not racist in their speech or actions.  I allowed them to present their ideas with little commentary on my part.  Having recently presented this material to two of my black senior boys, they both confirmed it as true, saying that as black men, they feel these feelings daily.  The next day in class, I addressed the outrage of the previous day, but this time I reminded them that these articles accurately reflected the way that these two boys, and many others like them, actually feel on a daily basis.  Although the class was not actively racist, their inaction to squash racism and to not speak for those who can’t may implicate them, a difficult truth for them to accept.  This confrontation with my class brought a very harsh truth to my own attention:  when we are presented with harsh truths, we often times react badly through rejection and avoidance.  We don’t deal well with truths that challenge our thinking, and in a childlike manner, throw proverbial tantrums to either avoid the conversation or immediately prove the other person wrong.  Maybe it’s because when we hear a harsh truth, we are forced to make a choice: accept it or reject it.  Christ encountered this resistance quite often.  When He walked among us, despite that He accomplished much in His ministry on Earth, when we were confronted with the truth of Him being the Messiah, our prejudices kicked in when we chose to free a thief instead of a Nazarene, we rejected His truth as savior, and we crucified Him, an act that Peter addressed to the crowds: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you…and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2.22-23).  The truth of His power was irrefutable, but we fought against the harsh truth of Him being our God.  Christ as our savior is a harsh truth that forces us to choose.  And like my students who bravely faced down harsh truths, we are changed in the wake of that acceptance.   Being confronted with a harsh truth is never easy, and we may hide from it, shun it, and argue it to no end.  But tackling one is absolutely life changing.  This week, stare down those truths that you have been avoiding and make your decision.  In its aftermath, your new life and view awaits.  Amen.

Knowing that Someone Notices

How much we impact others is always difficult to measure.  Mark Twain once quipped that he could “live for two months on a good compliment.”  There are people I can remember from twenty years ago that I only met once, yet there was that one thing they said that sticks out in my mind, words that left an impression on me, and they probably don’t even remember the conversation.  When my seniors graduate, I give them five piece of advice to help them in their life.  Of the five, one is “People remember the smallest things, and for them that may be the most significant thing.”  I use it as a means to show how our impact is often larger than we think it is, how the smallest action or word can stick with a person for a lifetime, despite how insignificant you might think it is.  For example, I can remember one church youth group member of mine who, when I asked him why he decided to come to youth group for the last year, told me that it was because the first time he came, I said hello to him.  I couldn’t believe that such a small gesture, one I didn’t even remember, could make such an impact, but it was that feeling of acknowledgement that compelled him to stay.  Similarly, I recently reached out to two people I knew were going through a rough time, people I don’t usually talk to who crossed my mind, just to let them know that I was thinking about them.  I thought I’d take the chance with what I deemed a small gesture.  However, the response went on and on about how much it meant to them, that someone was thinking about them.  I later learned that there was very little keeping one of these two in the world, and my call may have been the only thing that kept him in this world a little longer.  Here, acknowledgement translated to encouragement.  Lifting each other up as Christians is a direct command from the Bible, as 1 Thessalonians 5.11 writes: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  This directive indicates a need among us to continuously do so, to be compassionate, to empathize, and to encourage.  I knew what it felt like when it feels as if no one cares, hence I made that call to help them feel a little less alone.  It took thirty seconds, yet those seconds of acknowledgement matter in years to those people.  There are countless numbers of people who walk around us thinking that no one cares about them, that most wouldn’t notice if they were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth.  As Christians, we have the obligation and the power to reach out to those who feel that way, and most often all it takes is an acknowledgement.  When I see my students grappling with difficult times, just asking if they are okay is often times enough to help them feel better.  They usually don’t even share what they are going through, but just the knowledge that someone noticed is often times enough for them.  God is revealing these people in need to us, sometimes right in front of us and other times in the form of a passing thought.  Our job is to act, letting these people know that we noticed them and that they matter.  This week, when someone crosses your mind or path, take it as a sign to reach out and let that person know that you noticed and were thinking about him or her.  It may be just the message that keeps them going.  Amen.

When Hard of Hearing is Just Too Hard to Hear

My oldest dog Elinor just turned 14 which is fairly old for a dog.  Her spirit is still fairly strong, but her body is weaker than it used to be.  You can see the stiffness in her joints and the pain she experiences when she walks, but her desire to be filled with vigor is still definitely there.  When we call her, she rarely responds, and when we tell her to come back, she never complies.  She will incessantly bark at all the wrong hours of the day, and when we tell her to stop, she never does.  All of this evidence adds up to the conclusion that she is mostly deaf.  However, open a bag of treats while she is on the other side of the house, and she will come running.  I tend to disagree with the deaf diagnosis and feel that in her age, she has developed selective hearing.  She chooses to hear what she wants to, and at her age, and I suppose she’s earned that right.  On the other hand, I might argue that my 7 year old son has not earned that right, especially when I ask him to put something away or clean up after himself.  Nor have my students earned that right either, especially when they’ve selectively forgotten that I told them they had homework.  There is a distinct difference between someone who is hard of hearing and a message that is hard to hear.  When we find someone else’s words uncomfortable and against our desires, we tune them out.  We develop selective hearing when we hear things upon which we don’t want to act.  The Bible is riddled with people who heard the voice of God directly or through a prophet who chose not listen, and as a result, were punished, reinforcing the idea that choosing not to listen to wisdom never works in our favor.  God’s reasons for having us listen to reason and wisdom are quite simple.  When Solomon wrote the wisdom of Proverbs, in the opening chapter he laid out his purpose for writing these words which include:  “for gaining wisdom and instruction, for understanding…for receiving instruction…for giving prudence…—let the wise listen and add to their learning” (1.2-5).  There is great strength to be gained in listening to wisdom, and God can often speak to us through the people around us, using them as His vessel.  So, how do we know when God is trying to tell us something?  The times when that strong desire to not even want to think about or consider what others are saying because the message is too hard to hear is usually the times when God is trying to talk to us and we are not listening.  When we may not want to even entertain the company of a specific person or group because we don’t want to hear what is said may be because the message is too hard to hear for us personally.  It affects us too deeply.  For many of us, it’s hard to hear to forgive when you’ve been hurt so deeply.  It’s hard to hear to sacrifice when you hold so dearly on to certain things.  It’s hard to hear to cut out a part of your life when you find so much comfort in it.  It’s hard to hear to give when you have nothing left to offer.  In this New Year, spend time seeking out the people and situations where you have developed selective hearing.  When what others have to say is hard to hear, it mostly likely needs to be heard, and not listening to God’s counsel can have dire consequences, but listening to a hard to hear message will ultimately bring you closer to God.  Amen.