Last week, in our multi-generational, valentines service, I tried to talk about the importance of coming right out and saying it when we love someone. That was the beginning of a three week focus on warming up relationships in our personal lives, our family lives (however you define family) and in our larger communities as well. Next week will be the final of the three weeks, and to celebrate this overall theme of WARMING UP our relationships, we will be having, woven throughout our regular service, a beach party. Please haul out your most outrageous beach-wear, (although I suspect I speak for all of us when I say “speedos are discouraged.” (Just a personal thing with me, this belief that only Olympic Swimmers should be allowed to wear Speedos, and even they really shouldn’t.) Anyway, short of that, have at it, and feel free to bring your morning beverage in a glass with a little umbrella, and bring any tropical or summertime decorations you’d like to contribute to the sanctuary. Mostly, be ready for a good time.
In the meantime, I’d like to use today to look at a very simple, obvious yet often ignored component to warming up our relationships, namely the act of choosing to be a good listener. I say “choosing” because given the nature of personality, of the ego mind which is like the water the fish swims in, and of which it is virtually unaware; given the ego mind from which we all operate, the kind of good listening I am talking about really has to be consciously chosen, because it does not come naturally, at least, I daresay, not to most of us. It is the nature of personality to want to assert itself, to put its ideas and thoughts and opinions and personal experiences out there, in any given conversation. Left to standard operating procedure, I suspect that most of us are often, in conversation, just biding our time until we can wedge a metaphorical elbow in and stake our claim for OUR next turn to speak. Again, this is not to judge or blame, it’s just the way the ego mind works, and I think it takes a lot of practice, and some really conscious choosing, to override this natural tendency.
It helps, as today’s readings from the blogger pointed out, for the listener to learn to ask different kinds of questions, specific questions that make the other think and then respond in a way that will offer up a real window to the inner life, even if it us full of messy ambiguity. And it helps to remember, as the blogger also pointed out, that what most of us want when we are sharing the honest content of our hearts, is not to have the situation “fixed” but just to be truly, fully heard even in the midst of all the messiness.
East Shore, by the way, now has a half dozen or so folks who attended a training workshop by Rev. Mary Grigolia on lay pastoral visitation. This is a pilot effort here eat East Shore (there will be further opportunity for people to get involved later) intended to match up folks who may be home bound, or who are in the midst of a particular struggle, or maybe could just use some extra support, to match them up with visitors whose sole intent will be to be good listeners; not to try to solve problems or fix anything, but to provide a safe context where someone can be heard clear through. This program will not replace the minister’s pastoral care visits, but will hopefully augment it, offering additional support, and closer connections to the church in general. This group of available listeners has opted to call themselves the “Lay Pastoral Connections Team” and if you are interested in being matched with a “lay pastoral connector” please let me know.
We wanted to make this program available because we believe that when the kind of listening I am talking about today happens, it can be a healing and restorative thing. Even when nothing changes in the situation that the visitee may be struggling with, still it is healing to have a safe context in which to talk about it, and be heard and cared about right in the midst of it all. I have experienced this myself as the one being listened to on many occasions. Somehow, after having been able to put it all out there, even with all the inherent confusion and self doubt, somehow, in being met with love and kindness, and in being offered back reflections of my own thoughts, everything felt different.
This process is powerfully described in an essay entitled “Tell Me More” by one of my favorite writers, Brenda Ueland. This is longer passage than I usually quote in a sermon, but she says it so well that it’s worth it for you to hear it in her words. From “Tell Me More.”
I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all — which is so important too — to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like the sun’s rays.
This is the reason: When we’re listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.
Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice? Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself.
When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created. There is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom. That is why, when someone has listened to you, you go home rested and lighthearted.
Now this little creative fountain is in us all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination—whatever you want to call it. It is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.
Before going to a party, I tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk; to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs or arguing, or being fascinating. My attitude is: “Tell me more. Show me your soul. It may be a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive.”
Unless you listen, people are wizened in your presence; they become about a third of themselves. Unless you listen, you can’t know anybody. Listening is love, that’s what it really is. The tragedy of parents and children is not listening, as it is with spouses. And the most serious result of not listening is that worst thing in the world, boredom; for it is really the death of love.
In order to learn to listen, here are some suggestions: Try to learn tranquility, to live in the present a part of the time every day. Then suddenly you begin to hear not only what people are saying, but what they are trying to say, and you sense the whole truth about them. Then watch your self-assertiveness. And give it up. Only then does the magic begin.
And so try listening. Listen to your partner, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don’t, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.
Indeed it is simplistic but true. Real, deep, nonjudgmental listening is love. And it is warmth. It turns up the heat. And in the midst of this long winter, isn’t it time to come in out of the cold?