Can We Start Listening?

Currently I have 10 posts I have not completed in my draft folder. Today I looked at each of them and asked myself if I wanted to complete one of them today. I reread every word I wrote on each of them and I realized something, many had one thing in common. I have posts on social justice, the COVID pandemic, media bias, among other issues and they all seem to revolve around listening. I find it amazing that as I write about the issues plaguing the country I consistently see the need to listen. And yet, we are creating a culture completely inept at listening. We do not listen to experts, we do not listen to neighbors, we do not listen to those with different opinions, in fact, we only seem to listen to those who will confirm our beliefs. And that leads to division and instability within society.

We are a culture of talking heads and not listening ears and we wonder why we see such tension and conflict around us. I cannot count the number of times this year I have said to someone, “Please, listen to (or read) what I said and respond to my comments.” because a person is simply lumping my comments in with talking points of their political rivals. Rather than hearing my case individuals respond to what the rival political party has said about the issue. It makes no difference if my opponent is Republican or Democrat there is an automatic assumption that I am in the opposite camp.

We are a culture of soundbites and glib pat answers instead of honest discussion with serious answers. The result is we lack wisdom. The Bible holds up wisdom as the way humanity should act and the means by which God will bring peace and wholeness to the world. And a quick glance at the Wisdom literature of the Bible shows the ties between listening and wisdom.

To answer before listening— that is folly and shame. Proverbs 18:3
A false witness will perish, but a careful listener will testify successfully. Proverbs 21:28
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
    the sayings and riddles of the wise. Proverbs 1:5-6

One thing I have discovered over the years is listening means a lot more than simply hearing the words said. Listening takes real effort and attention. I must carefully sift through what my conversation partner is and is not saying to truly get at the heart of their comment. I have a bad habit of following a person’s argument so I can get to the end before they do or so I can criticize it with my next comment. But this is not listening, listening would be to try to understand the person’s ideas and to try to use my comments to help that person see mine.

I know some will respond, “But it is so hard to know who to listen to, there is just too much coming at me.” This is where wisdom comes into play; because as Proverbs says wisdom is the end goal of listening. As I listen to the various issues around me I search for people of wisdom and ask them their opinion. I ask them how they reach their opinion and I ask them how they sort through the information and voices of the day to find what is true. Over time I have come to understand how these individuals think and I begin to understand how to sort the facts for myself (though I will never outgrow the wisdom of others).

The problem is our culture does not prize wisdom and so does not prize listening. We prize power and winning (including winning arguments) and will not compromise the potential for winning the point. My counseling professors would often stress the need to listen to individuals who I was supposed to help. Correcting behavior and suggesting solutions to issues come out of my ability to assured them they are heard. Once a person feels heard then a dialogue can begin and real healing can happen. Listening helps to identify problems which may still lie below the surface, unconsidered by either person which are holding up real progress.

Even if I am 100% right and my interlocutor is 100% wrong, I still must listen well if I am going to make statements which will honestly educate rather than defeat that person. I must remember that a person who disagrees with me is not a combatant, at worst I am dealing with an ill-informed or ignorant person, but most likely I am dealing with someone who has differing values or experiences. In such cases my responsibility is not to beat that person into submission but to converse to find out how our values will work together to form a society. Wisdom will ultimately lead to a society built on God’s principles but the first step is to create a working society between people.

If we want real progress in this country we need to seek wisdom, and the first steps in that process involve listening to others. Listening to hear their wounds, their perspectives, their concerns and then beginning to work together for real healing in society.

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