Tuesday, March 09, 2004
The Art Of Listening

So I'm sitting in class this afternoon - Wisdom Literature In Ancient Israel. It's an intriguing mix of academics and theology, and we're just now moving into examining whether the classical concept of wisdom is present in the prophetic works of the Israelite people. To set us up for all of this the prof (actually, he's a PhD candidate) is trying to explain the wisdom dichotomy (divine and human, further divided into three sections: priestly, sage, and prophetic) and how it is used to look at the texts, when one of my fellow students (quite learnéd himself) embarks on a series of questions, the purpose of which is to point out to that he doesn't think the examples the prof gave really fit what he is trying to say.

As a third party observer, I felt rather tolerant of his queries at first; but as he continued to draw things out, I realized something: they were both saying the same thing! The prof was trying to give examples of how, in this particular instance, divine wisdom can agree with human wisdom, and how, in other situations, they diverge completely. The student was taking umbrage, and saying, in different wording, he felt uncomfortable implying that divine and human wisdom were one and the same.

I did a mental double-take. 'Did you not listen to what the prof just said?'

This conversation continued throughout the next two hours, always hitting the same points, and always coming to the brink of vehemence - but they both kept making the exact same points, and never realized it.

Why not? Because they weren't actually listening to each other. They'd grab a point or two from the other person's exposition and assume it was their "opponent's" position; so they'd argue against it, all the time pointing to the Scriptures in front of them and coming to the same conclusions, but in different phrasings. If it hadn't been a waste of my time, I would have found it rather amusing.

What is it about humans that we don't actually listen? Countless times, as a child, I would say something to my parents, and they would nod, grunt, 'yeah, okay' and ignore me. Until, that is, they realized my point on their own, and (on occasion) recognized that my point was important. To an extent, this still happens - my father and I share a love for music (as does most of my family), but whenever we (the boys) play him a tune that we've found and enjoy, he usually doesn't absorb it. Then, three or four weeks later, when he comes across the song himself, he points it out to us as a great one - and we remind him that we played it for him not but a month ago.

I do the same thing with my brothers - they are excited about the latest punk/emo/screamo/whatever-the-current-mo-is selections, and I only listen half-heartedly when they play it. Then later, when I hear it on the radio, or hear them playing it through the house, I realize that it was as good as they were saying.

We have a propensity to ignore those around us. The problem in my class was that the student wasn't listening to the lecture 'as a whole' - he was merely picking up small points and piecing them together on his own, rather than letting the lecturer come to his conclusion before he started his own (unnecessary) argument. In the case of music, my father and I weren't exactly fully plugged into the conversation. In both instances, we aren't really listening.

Listening is a skill, and it has to be developed. As with most skills, it improves with practice. But there's something deeper here than not listening to those around us. Why don't we listen? Because we are focused on ourselves, and not necessarily in the more benign 'self-interest' category, but quite often with a passive/aggressive selfish-ness.

This, I think, is at the core of why people - in all walks of life, and in all aspects of society - don't listen. We don't care - or more accurately, we care more about whatever is on our minds now than what you are saying to us. Of course, if I were to keep running with this, I'd tie it all back to C.S. Lewis' insightful observation that everything begins and ends with pride. He's right, but that's not my point.

My point is that we are missing out on so much. My two hours of class was not a total waste - we did make some progress - but it was almost completely focused on a single issue that had no real conflict in it, but could not be abandoned because the parties would not listen to one another. I have frequently missed out on what my brothers enjoy musically for weeks at a time, because I'm too self-focused to pay attention to them. Trivial or not, when we don't listen, we cheat ourselves - not only out of information, but also out of the benefit that information brings.

My solution? We should all just shut up.

Not really. But we need to realize that, in most situations, it is in our best interests to really listen. Even when we're tired. Even when we know we're in the right. Even when we know that the other guy isn't making any coherent point. Because if we do, if we really listen to those who speak to us, then we'll almost always find something we didn't know before. And that's definitely a good thing.

[Edited for grammar and coherence. -- Ed.]

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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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