The need to listen…

There’s been an awful lot going on this last month…and sometimes it’s left me feeling discouraged.

  • Hurricanes leaving incredible devastation in their wake…and what feels like an inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the needs of the people who have lost everything and who must be wondering just where do you even start to recover…
  • Earthquake in Mexico…again leaving devastation and sorrow in its wake…
  • The protests against injustice and inequality…
  • Listening to incredibly painful stories of members of the LGBTQ+ community…

And yet…there is something to be learned–and hope to be found.

Recently I was at a weekend focused on history of faith communities that come out of the same heritage mine does. For many, many years, the various faith communities refused to talk to each other. We talked AT each other and we spent much of our time pointing out the differences between us and how we were right. More recently, though, we have talked and worked together–and that has been a blessing. We are still aware of our differences both in understanding our history and in our theologies…but we have found that there are many ways in which we can work together to make a difference.

Responders to natural disasters also at times need silence so that they can listen…listen to hear voices calling for help.

And as I watch the protests against justice and inequality–and listen to the responses about those protests–and listened to the stories of young (and older) people who have experienced incredible pain and sometimes severe trauma as they have struggled to be true to who they are…I have learned much.

It requires us to listen. Not just to listen–but also to hear. And sometimes that requires us to be silent.

I’ve just finished reading a book I’d highly recomment–On Living by Kerry Egan. She’s a hospice chaplain, and the book contains stories shared from her experience–both personal experience she had after the birth of her first child as well as stories her patients have encouraged her to share. I’m a minister in my faith tradition–and this quote from her book really spoke to me:

“When we dismiss an experience as “not real,” what we are actually rejecting is the person’s attempt at making meaning of the experience. That’s a cruel thing to do. Attempting to find or make meaning is perhaps the central task of the spiritual life.”

So what does that have to do with the issues I pointed out above? I think it has a lot.

We can get so caught up in all the horror of the natural disasters that we don’t really hear the cries for help.

We can have such a visceral emotional response to a protest that we are unable (or unwilling) to hear the pain that causes the protest.

What if we asked instead this question: “What does that [action…fear…event] mean to you?” And then, what if we really listened to the question? Really listened…

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” —Roy T. Bennett in The Light in the Heart

Without a past…

Those of you who know me know that I love to read. I’m currently reading a book whose title intrigued me (The Woman without a Past)—and inspired this post. (That’s the only thing the two items have in common!)

What happens when we live “without a past”?

I’ve been musing about America…and wondering if, in many ways, we are a country without a past. Perhaps not in the way people might think—after all, we have a 200+ year history.

But…if we are not willing to honestly come to terms with our past, perhaps we really don’t have one.

What do I mean by that?

We need to listen to each other…all of us.

We are not simply a white Christian country. There were indigenous civilizations before the white people came to this country—and we have yet to truly become aware of their history…and how the interactions between their civilization and the white civilization impacted them and continues to do so today.

Others came to this country by choice (or semi-choice)—and yet, even they were not all welcomed or their culture acknowledged. We can look back at newspaper articles and posters of a couple hundred years ago and become aware that Chinese, Irish…and members of other cultures…were not allowed in certain places. Unfortunately that has still been true until recently. I had a Chinese-American friend who—with her white husband—was not welcome in certain communities because she was not white.

And then there’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to confront. Africans were brought to this country under duress for many years—torn away from their families of origin…and then separated again from their families under the burden of slavery.

It is true that none of us alive today had anything to do with those atrocities—but we are all still impacted by them. Once a culture has been so terribly broken as the African cultures were for those who came to this country, it is difficult to find something to hold on to. It may take many, many generations for that brokenness to be healed—if it ever can be completely. And those of us who are white are also impacted. Many of us have been comfortable with who we are—and we may find ourselves getting angry with those who want to continually harp on past wrongs because we don’t understand what that has to do with us.

But we have to confront that past. Our history is not the sanitized and whitewashed history of Gone with the Wind where the slaves were part of the family and well taken care of. It is more the history of 12 Years a Slave if we are truthful with ourselves.

Fear of each other—and each other’s stories—keeps us from truly having a past. It allows us to continue to perpetuate myths about who we are and how we got where we are today. It creates an environment where neo-Nazis can march openly on college campuses, chanting slogans from a past that we thought we would never see again…where a biracial 8-year-old boy can have a noose put around his neck and be tossed from a picnic table by a group of white boys…where young black men fear any kind of interaction with policemen…and where policemen (whether black or white) fear themselves about their actions being second-guessed and whether they are walking into danger.

We DO have a past. It is both wonderful and horrifying—but we will never really understand it…or ourselves…until we are willing to be honest with ourselves and with each other.