Delivered March 2, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Not super edited version)
It is said that listening and hearing are two different things. Hearing is a biological process, very complicated and elegant having to do with particles and vibrations and a bunch of sciencey things that I don’t understand. Hearing can certainly be a process with challenges that range from natural causes at birth, or problems that arise as we age and/or in relation to how many Bruce Springsteen and concerts we have been to in our lives. Something I have never told anyone before is that I have been to enough loud concerts where I have developed problems with my right ear hurting often when decibels reach a certain level. Listening though is different than hearing. Listening is a “neurological cognitive process” where we interpret what we hear. In many ways hearing is all the stuff that comes in, listening is how we process it through who we have been, who we are and who we could be.
I often wonder about what people are thinking about when they are listening. Of course we all listen to various degrees at various times based on various circumstances. I have observed that there is an age, I think it is around 4 or 5, where some children just talk. Often they don’t care if anyone is listening or paying attention, they just kind of keep going with whatever story they were telling when someone was listening until they are finished or move on to another subject. That always makes me wonder about parents who can completely tune out their kids at some times and yet hear the littlest peep when a noise is made after being told to go to sleep, (or at least it seemed that way in my house).
Listening can be hard. It can be hard to focus sometimes, I think we have all been there, the TV is on, you are watching your favorite program and someone comes into the room with the most important thing ever to tell you and you feign listening. Or someone is telling you about something and your thoughts turn to which restaurant has the best brunch and you start wondering what time it closes. Or you find yourself waiting for the person to take a breath so you can tell them exactly what you really think about what they are saying.
Listening is complicated further by the filters through which we hear and there are layers and layers of filters. Let’s say we are listening to FOX news for example and they say the exact same thing that was said on MSNBC, I wonder if many of us would we react the same way. Or if we were listening to Pat Robertson and he said the exact same thing as Bishop Desmond Tutu or Pope Francis or UUA President Peter Morales, would we have the same thoughts about what Pat had to say. Well, the answer to all that is that it depends. It depends on how we were raised. It depends on what part of the country or world we are from. It depends on our education. It depends on our political leanings. It depends on our religious teachings. It depends on so many things. I heard a line many years ago that I always say which is, in the absence of clarity people fill in their own meaning and context, but clarity is a funny thing, what we listen to and how deeply and attentively we listen to it, can become “clear” to us in large part because of our own meaning and context. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear which makes me wonder how truly deeply we are listening.
In poking around on the web I found a sermon coincidentally called, the Art of Listening written be a colleague of mine I have never met, Rev. Daniel S. Schatz who is a minister of a UU congregation in Pennsylvania. In his sermon he says, “Listening is about paying attention to the person in front of us and being with them in that moment. Honestly, that’s the most important thing. If we can learn to do that, then we will have mastered the art of listening. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Just pay attention to the person in front of you. Be with them in the moment, that’s all. But within that simplicity is a practice of pure spirit and profound humanity, a way of being in the world that takes us out from our separated selves and brings us together with other people. All we have to do is be with each other and listen, but doing that means letting go of our ego and our self-doubt and our preconceptions.”
This isn’t easy in a world that seems to constantly place an enormous amount of value on individual opinions, debate, and free advice. I am not saying that there isn’t a place for all of these for there is. Great expressions of thoughts and opinions can further the world. Civil discussions of important issues serve to broaden consciousness and make us consider and reconsider our own frameworks. Well placed advice can help in all sorts of ways. Yet, with all the media talking heads and bloggers and status updates and letters to the editor and op-eds in paper and to be honest, sermons, we are a culture with a lot to say and with never-ending places to say it. And often our listening seems so incredibly diffused by all the things that I have just mentioned, an endless stream of thoughts and opinions.
And there is more to the art of listening than what comes in our ears. It is about paying attention to the thoughts AND the feelings of others. It is about body language and soul language and heart language, language of that which is said and unsaid. If we are really listening, maybe we are not just listening to the words but really listening to what the person is saying in the multiple ways that we actually communicate with each other.
Many people know that I had the experience as a part of my ministerial training as a Chaplain at Rady Children’s Hospital in the cancer unit and in pediatric intensive care but I have not often talked about it. For me it was a sacred experience, one I did not take lightly and one that I hold in deep respect. One of the reasons I wanted to do my training there was I thought I would be able to work with children, it seemed natural, it was a Children’s Hospital after all. I did work with children, but I ended up working a great deal more with the families of the patients. When I went to work there, I wasn’t terrified, I was excited and really overwhelmed. I had no idea what I was going to say to families whose children were suffering, how would I help them, who was I to say anything about anything to a parent needing comfort in a time of terrible uncertainty or pain. I entered into it thinking, I am training to be a minister, but I’m not yet and I will be speaking with people who are dealing with some of the most challenging and tragic issues we can possibly face, what wisdom do I have to give?
What I learned in that experience changed my life and changed me forever. And although I still practice and certainly at times struggle, what I learned was that it wasn’t what I had to say that would bring these families comfort, what was far more important was how I listened. Was I fully present? Did I see the human need in what they said and what they didn’t say? Was I able to hold the space for the moments that we shared together? These were much bigger questions than what pearl of wisdom could I share. What I learned was to truly listen, with an open mind and an open heart for this was a transcendent act that bridged cultures, religions and differences. And just as a side note, I then often prayed with people in whatever religious language they needed because when one is grieving or in fear about the health or life of their child, the need for compassion and comfort completely trumps theological or philosophical debate or reasoning.
This experience helped me think about another tendency I have often seen and certainly dealt with in my own life, the need to fix things. When I read the sermon from Rev. Schatz, I love what he said about this. He said, “The most powerful experiences of being listened to that I have known were the times when I knew I could talk without making sense, when I could say things because I was thinking them or feeling them, not because I knew them, and when the person with me could just be with me, a presence and an affirmation that I didn’t have to go through whatever it was, good or bad, alone. Somebody else cared enough to make time, and they didn’t try to solve my problems, and they didn’t tell me I was wrong, or right. They didn’t place blame on me or try to absolve me of anything. Maybe they asked me some questions; maybe they even thought of something I hadn’t, but they didn’t pressure me. They just sat with me or walked with me. They just knew me. And it was powerful and beautiful and healing.”
I am not sure if it’s because we place such strong emphasis on success or if it because there is pressure to conform to some form of morality or because we think we always know the best way to do things or whatever, and I guess it doesn’t really matter, if we enter into a conversation thinking that our job is to fix everything, let me just let you off the hook on that one right now, we never will. We can give good advice when the time is right, we certainly can be companions with someone when they need companionship, we can even have a spirited discussion when that need arises, but as Rev. Schatz says, “when a soul reaches out for human presence and you give yourself to that soul in that moment; allowing yourself to be that companion, listening becomes a sacred act. Listening becomes connection. Listening becomes prayer. Listening becomes the greatest gift that one human being can give to another.”
I ask this question of myself at Rady, and I ask it to all of us, do we really know what’s best? Do we really know the right course of action, or the perfect thing to say? Do we really know what someone is thinking? Do we really know the motivation behind what we think we are hearing? Why do we so often think we know? And when we ask questions of others, do we ask them really wanting to hear what someone has to say, or do we really just want to hear what we want to hear? We may not like it, we may disagree, but trying to listen, truly listen to another person is just one more thing that takes practice, of the mind, of the heart and of the spirit, for us all.
Rev. Schatz says that, “All that it takes is letting go of the barriers. Don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right; just be with them and care. Don’t try to solve the problems; just listen and let them know they don’t have to go through it alone. Don’t try to impress them with how much you know; this isn’t about what you know. Don’t try to lighten the mood, at least not until you know they’re ready, not because you feel uncomfortable and awkward. Let go of the awkwardness; deal with the discomfort. This isn’t about you. Be with them. Care.”
In the end, this is about all of us because a big part of all of this is our desire to actually make the time, take the energy and hold a space for this process to occur. It needs to be something that is intentional and filled with true desire. We may not always know the right thing to say, we may not always have words that comfort, we may not be able to change anything, but our lives can be changed “when a soul reaches out for human presence and you give yourself to that soul in that moment; allowing yourself to be that companion” it is a sacred act, it is deep connection, it is a prayer and it can be one of the greatest gifts that one human being can give to another and it is something that this world truly needs.
May it be so.