Saint Francis of Assisi prayed back in the 13th century, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” Stephen Covey, author of some of the most influential books of our time—including Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—said that we must be able to listen with the intent to understand.
Listening is a natural and easy act, but it takes effort, intent, and mindfulness to sincerely hear another person’s point of view and really know where he or she is coming from. It requires quieting our own thoughts, opening up our minds, absorbing the situation, and seeking to understand. It takes openness and a great deal of humility to truly listen to others. As Saint Paul said, “In humility value others above yourself. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
With today’s trending emphasis on the self, individualism, and individualistic values, it is easy for us to forget what Christ told us are the two greatest commandments: “Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:30).
Listen to Love Well
Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the last century, once remarked: “The first duty of love is to listen.” We can begin to love by simply being in a state where we can truly listen. We must learn to be fully present and listen to the voice of God speaking to our hearts.
The second greatest commandment is loving your neighbor as yourself. Loving our neighbors entails the same kind of listening—becoming fully present, emptying our thoughts, and freeing the mind of clutter of judgement and bias. We must listen to their story first because biases are the stories that we make up about the other. When we truly listen, we slip into their shoes as we journey with them, feel their struggles, and rejoice with them in their triumph. We may not always see eye to eye, but the least we can try to do is have a respectful conversation where our voices matter.
Listen to Make the World A Better Place
With the societal issues we are dealing with today, we would have to trace the root causes if we really want to fix the symptoms. In our social relations, in our families, and in our personal lives, our networks of brokenness can begin to be repaired by listening to one another’s narratives.
Pope Francis, in a message to an audience in March 2017, said that listening can make the world a better place. Sadly, there seems to be a shortage in the willingness and the time to listen to one another’s story. True dialogue will not start unless it starts with the act of listening. And it’s not just the physical act of words passing through ear canals but it’s authentic, mindful, attentive, and empathetic listening where the words make it all the way through the mind and land in the heart.
Drowning in Noise
Listening seems like a simple and easy process, but it’s not. We’re all drowning in noise that includes a cacophony of voices all trying to say something. As Susan Cain describes in her book Quiet, we live in a world that “cannot stop talking.” There are so many voices trying to be heard but very few people actually listening. There is an increasing imbalance in the listening-talking equation, and the talking side far outweighs the listening side. Listening is the half of the conversation that requires more effort and more humility because of the noise that we are constantly drowning in.
Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “people forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.” How many of us plug our ears with earbuds to listen to digital soundtracks rather than live voices? How many of us can find the time to just sit down and listen to our neighbors, our peers, or even our loved ones? Our calendars are full, and when someone wants to hang out and talk, it often must be scheduled. In our desperate search for someone to hear our stories, we have turned to the artificial community of social media.
Shared Story, Shared Humanity
Listening is an act of faith and generosity. Listeners generously share their time, their presence, and their openness of mind and heart. In a time of divisiveness and discord, listening might just be the tool that we need to bridge the divide, to rebalance the dialogue equilibrium, and to remind us of our connectedness and our humanity. What we have been facing as a society in recent years is not just a crisis of social justice but also of spirituality. Listening may just lead us to rediscover that our individual stories, though many and diverse, are just part of one large epic story, one body, one spirit.