On Listening To What's There
“Look at my face”, I found myself saying, crouched down next to my nephew one day, trying to get his attention. He is 4, and always occupied by the outpouring of stories and ideas dancing through his little brain. I was trying to get him to listen to what I was saying, which helps if he’s looking at me, and not distracted by a toy tractor or My Little Pony.
They say we become more like our parents when we get older, and I felt the expression slip from my mouth in almost her exact voice. My mom’s tone and timbre, the way she says it with her eyebrows raised, for emphasis.
Look at my face. She still says it to me, every once in awhile. Now it’s tongue in cheek, when she’s trying to get my attention; it’s a subtle way of saying, I see that you’re not actually listening to what I’m saying. Mom code for “put the damn phone down”. Parents have an arsenal of tactics they use to teach their kids to listen. Look at my face. Are your listening ears on? What did I just say to you? Learning to listen is one of the first and most important lessons we teach little ones. It keeps them safe, it teaches them how to live in a world with other humans, and it connects them to other people. It makes communication possible.
Sometimes, kids listen more than we’d like. My dad once told me that when my older sister was about a year old, she started walking around with her toys, dropping them, saying “damn ting”, over and over. He had no idea where she could have learned that word.
We invest a lot in teaching kids to listen, but adults aren’t always so great at it. Or, maybe we are great at listening, but we don’t necessarily hear what people are saying. We listen, and hear what we wish we’d heard. We listen, and willfully misunderstand. We listen, and hear our own grief bouncing off and lashing back out into the world. We humans can be an echo chamber of our own baggage, unable to hear others because we haven’t slogged through the hard work that makes hearing other people’s needs possible. Some people get so used to not being heard that they stop talking all together. They shut down, they stop believing in other people, that things could get better.
Look at my face. It’s not a bad place to start. What if we were to cultivate a practice of listening better? Of listening, by putting aside our baggage for a moment. Of listening, and actually hearing what the other person is saying. Or asking for. Or afraid of. There is an old vow that I believe is attributed to the Celts, but I’m not certain about its origin. It goes like this:
I honor your gods.
I drink at your well.
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting places.
I have no cherished outcome.
I will not negotiate by withholding.
I am not subject to disappointment.
What if we brought these values to our listening? What if listening could be just as much an act of vulnerability and trust as sharing some deep part of ourselves? How might we approach conflict differently? How might we hear what other people need? How might that cause us to address that need in a way that shows the other person that we hear them? That we see them? Look at my face. May we practice seeing, hearing, loving others better.