THIS IS NOT A LISTENING DRILL
A friend recently said that there was a period of time a couple of years ago that he felt as if I had stopped listening to him. He experienced this even though I, Ted, carry the flag that suggests that listening (truly, deeply listening) is a panacea for just about everything that doesn’t work so well. He was right. Absolutely right. I had stopped listening to him. A man who I had considered my friend. A close friend. I was aware of it at the time.
I believe that we listen least well to the people closest to us. That was definitely true in this case. I knew it as I was interacting with him. I was puzzled myself by my behavior. Couldn’t I do something different? I knew I was missing something but didn’t know what. I still don’t. I didn’t know how to “just listen” to him anymore.
My typical response (on my good listening days) when someone expounds on something that seems (to me) to be inciting, outrageous, and provocative is something along the lines of “tell me more about that.” That isn’t a game. That response comes from a sincere, curious interest in knowing more about what they have said. Learning more about the details. More about how they came to believe what they are espousing.
I was in a quandary with my friend. I was embarrassed. I thought I had known him pretty well. We had shared more than a few real, authentic moments over the course of a two decade’s long friendship. I thought we shared many important mutual human values. We had many friends in common. And here he was proactively, publicly, widely and directly defending and promoting (what to me) represented dangerous, inciting, inflammatory, indefensible, indecent, and deadly behaviors by someone he admired. He was suggesting to his readers that they should “look beyond” such antics and focus on the greater good, the bigger picture, as he referred to it.
I actually originally thought about using some of my ‘listening tools’ in response to his posts and decided the effect might be to offer him an even greater opportunity to expound on his perspective. I would be like the “soft-ball” interviews that a friendly TV interviewer might offer someone. I decided for me to ask for more information, like good listening suggests I should do, might actually be harmful. It might encourage him to go even deeper into his narrative. To make his microphone even bigger. I strategized that if I could get him to spend his time defending my counterpoints (attacks is a better word….some personal….and I am not proud of that), he’d be more likely to have to stay at the first level of his thinking and writing.
The part I was most aware of was that people (some whom I knew personally and intimately) were being ridiculed, beaten, scapegoated, abused, mocked, bullied, threatened, living in fear, and in some instances killed. The perpetrators sometimes used as justification for their acts the actual words, and attitudes of a person with significant power that my friend was supporting. Based on what my friend seemed to being saying, while such things were unfortunate occurrences, they should be considered nothing more than collateral damage. Suggesting that a person, like myself, should be focusing on the big picture. On all the good things that were happening.
I was born during WWII. I say that I am student of and have been a victim of my study of history. I know too much. My major AND minor in college. I grew up hearing about the atrocities that were committed. I had learned that a significant factor in their occurrence was that people didn’t speak up. Not just Germans, but most of the modern world. Including Americans, who enthusiastically supported what was happening in Germany until 1941. The very same kinds of things (that from my perspective) were happening here in America, to and by our own people, before my own eyes.
I had grown up wondering what I would have done back then. I was secretly afraid that I would be one of those who didn’t speak up. It seemed to me that the time had come. What would I do?
Based on what I heard and saw important powerful people saying and even scarier the thousands who were cheering them on, and even more those who remained dead silent, it felt as if I was in world that was replicating the world of the early to middle 1930’s. The time had come, do I speak up or remain silent?
So, he was right. I HAD stopped listening to him. AND I also knew that what I was doing didn’t change anything with him, or anyone else who was in his chorus either. What I was doing was not helping, it was making it worse. But I didn’t know anything better to do. To just let it go by and say, do nothing, wasn’t an option.
My friend and I have talked since then. It comes down to he didn’t see what I saw at the time, and felt he had to defend what he did see. Me too.
I haven’t stopped wondering about all that. I read recently that when Gandhi learned of the bombs dropped on Japan, he was asked to comment. He refused. The essence of his response was that sometimes there are things that are just so beyond horrific, that one should not speak. It did change how he lived his life from then on. His response has changed my thinking about listening tools. School shootings of innocents. Mass killings of innocents. Beyond words? Have the words spoken helped, or would concentrated, deliberate silence be more powerful? An active silence?
I was in Hawaii on that Sunday morning a few years ago, where the alert came over the car radio and my phone. “MISSILES INCOMING. SEVEN MINUTES TO IMPACT. TAKE COVER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL!!!
I was reminded that listening at times when the missiles of deadly, highly sanctioned words, attitudes and behaviors from powerful influential people are crashing into the earth, and people are dying, before my very eyes, is not a drill. It is the real thing.
My friend suggested, at the time, that it wasn’t fair of me to connect words spoken by a powerful figure to other people’s behaviors. He did, however, warn me that I should be careful of mine, because I had that power.
Was he suggesting that in this situation, with this person, it was an exception to the power of words that we have historically attributed to the words of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, FDR, Saddam Hussein, Billy Graham, the Pope, Joel Osteen, Adolph Hitler……..?
At this point in time, I am pretty good at listening to you, even if what you are saying is REALLY different than what I believe. I actually quite enjoy it. We all have to believe something, and we do for the same reasons. If we didn’t have beliefs that make sense to us, we would kill ourselves or go crazy.
So, I can listen to you until people start suffering and dying because of what you say, and then I can’t anymore. I think I could listen to you even then, IF you were not beating a public drum justifying such behaviors.
Maybe a certain kind of silence is the answer. Not a passive silence, but an active silence.
I am interested in knowing how you answer this question for yourself. When do you, if you do, speak up?