“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just to listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it.” — Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom
Part of my practice, training and work is to listen. Listen to others' pain, stories, experiences, perceptions, beliefs. To listen deeply. To set aside judgment. To not fix. In the context of my work as a chaplain and practice as a spiritual director for the most part I find this is something I offer kindly and abundantly to those I serve, though perhaps not always easily. After all, being human I have my own triggers. Fortunately, I have the gift of being able to check in with others in my profession to make sure I am maintaining integrity and honesty in my work.
Following through on being a generous listener in other areas of my life is more challenging. Part of generous listening means listening to my own story and not discounting it. My first career was in accounting (1980's-early 1990’s.) I worked for a trucking company. The truckers, who you may be inclined to stereotype as sexist, weren’t as “sexist” as the male office staff. I had a boss that wanted to take me out for drinks to “discuss business.” I was married and so was he-I declined his offer. I was passed over for a promotion in favor of a man. The HR director used to pat all the pregnant women on their bellies (no permission requested) and made crude comments. We just accepted it as the “way it was.” I moved on to Hi-Tech, which was also male dominated, and had a boss who used to go for a run at lunch time. Running "fashion" in those days included flimsy shorts with built-in liners. He was allowed to sit in his office with his running apparel on half the afternoon while he “cooled down.” It was uncomfortable for female staff and I can’t imagine it would have been allowed for a woman. I finally went to work for a company run by a woman that honored women (Hanna Andersson.) Though I was getting burnt out on accounting by then and we parted ways after three years, the method of separating was handled with grace and kindness that, as a mother with two young children transitioning to "stay-at-home mom," left me with an example that there are better ways to do business.
I skim the surface of this very small part of my personal history as an example of what has shaped my understanding of what has been and has not been an acceptable way to “be” in the world. Of what a career woman assumed she needed to "put up with" in the 1980's and early 1990's. I also have my stories from childhood, school, church youth group, church in general, seminary, marriage and so forth that have shaped my perception of myself as a female and a woman. Shifting self-perceptions is difficult. Having someone to listen deeply to my stories helps me with the sifting and shifting.
There is more to this though. As I hear my story, I see it is only one perspective, one small journey. Yes, it is important. Important for my own healing and growth. But I also need to step away from my story so I don’t become self-focused forgetting there is a larger narrative. If I lose sight of the larger narrative, then I am not willing to reflect on my own prejudices, see that alongside my own indignities there is also privilege.
On January 21, 2017 I walked with my daughter and an estimated crowd of 70,000 in downtown Portland, Oregon (talk about a collective of narratives!) It was part of the Woman’s March on Washington in response to the recent inauguration. Leading up to the march, I read many of the Facebook comments that had a wide variety of opinions. Many women of color and other marginalized groups felt they were not being included. Their comments were not always received with grace. They did not feel heard. White women were told they were privileged and were not inclusive. They shot back with their own hurtful words. A Kumbaya moment it was not. But, some listened and there was dialog. It was a reminder that peace doesn’t come without painful reaction and hopefully, eventually, reflection. And movements toward justice are anything but easy. (One of my favorite authors on peace, reconciliation and conflict transformation is John Paul Lederach http://www.onbeing.org/program/art-peace/182.)
For myself I am willing to admit I have prejudices. I wish I didn’t. But to deny that prejudice has been institutionally embedded in me would be a lie. And some prejudices have even invited in. So, here it is in writing: I have prejudices. I need help recognizing them and overcoming them.
Here are ways I invite myself to hear experiences that are different from my own: I read books, listen to poetry, stories and podcasts, and go to movies that challenge my world view. I recommend Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. The movies Hidden Figures and Loving. And the website Button Poetry http://buttonpoetry.com/. Many of these leave me feeling uncomfortable. And well they should. Change is NEVER comfortable.
This is only a start. My young adult children are wonderful examples. They are open to diversity in many aspects of their lives. I am learning from them. It is not too late as long as I am willing to peel back the layers of my beliefs, step out of my comfort zone, allow myself to be broken open and listen. Listen to you, to myself, with grace.
I started this post with a quote by one of my favorite authors. “When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it.” The context of the quote had to do with medicine and healing. It is true from my experience that “just receive them” is one of the greatest gifts we can offer as healers. But in the cause of social justice there is a need to do something. I am asking myself now the march is done “what is next for me to do” beyond listening? I don’t have answers. Just a willingness to hear your story and ask “what do you need from me?”
As you reflect on your life, what perceptions about yourself need challenging? What would it look like to listen deeply to someone else's story?