Listen with Love

Communication between individuals is always a partial success at best.  We never really know that our meaning was perfectly clear unless the subject is totally objective, such as a math formula, and no truly meaningful thing we want to say can ever be totally objective.  Instead, we process the words and the tone and attempt to parse additional meaning from the context.  Context is the richest part of communication, or the lack of communication. If we are talking about our families, the context of “you folks” and “us” is fairly innocent and obvious.  If we are talking about race or politics, the context may seem to be completely different to either party.  If we are talking about a loan with the finance guy at the auto dealership, we may be inclined to assume a context of deceit straight off, while if we are talking across the pillow to a lover we may assume playfulness or tenderness is the context.

The talk today is about context and our personal disposition.  I want to discuss our capacity and willingness to make a conscious decision to allow for communication from others to be taken in a loving context.  I will start with a parable that you have probably seen before. It is not cited here because I strongly doubt the origin is clear, but suffice to say that it is not my original work:

A woman is sitting on a subway train one day, running a little late for work due to some minor delays, so she was in an irritable state.  A man gets on the subway with three kids.  He sits down and is reading some papers, oblivious to the fact that the children with him are dashing around the car, swiping at each other and screaming in the most annoying fashion.  After a few moments, the woman is just indignant at the lack of discipline and says to the man “Can’t you control these children at all?” He looks up at her, revealing bloodshot eyes, and says “Oh, I’m sorry. We just came from the hospital where their mother died this morning, and I guess they are a little high strung. I should pay more attention.”

This story is used to describe how to construct a plot twist, or how to understand the concept of a paradigm shift, but what I would like for us to do is to consider the effect that the context had when it was based on assumptions and how it changed when those assumptions are reconsidered.  It is too easy to side with the woman at the start of the story.  Other people can be so annoying when they do not seem to be considering our comfort and our needs at all as they go about their own way, but if we consider their comfort and their needs in a sympathetic way, the context changes and we might just be able to get along much better.  This woman thought she knew exactly what the context was: He was a deadbeat and the kids were wild delinquents-to-be. He was what was wrong with the world today and his kids were what will be wrong with the world tomorrow. Then, all at once, they were normal people dealing with their own problems and she had to face her own hardness of heart.

Stories like this are illustrative because they are so simple and short and we can all see the moment where the context shifts. However, our lives are longer, more complex stories with contexts that often remain rooted in assumptions that we can only overcome if we are open to examining them from another perspective, and to do so on a continual basis.  It is not enough to tell ourselves “I’ve been in that situation, myself” and think this justifies our harsh judgments.  That is often the basis for the bullied runt who grows up to be the bully, or the abused child that grows up to abuse. Instead, we must be prepared to say “if that were me, today, how would I feel?” We have to be able to view ourselves in unflattering terms.  No, we do not have to hate ourselves, but we have to get over the fear that if we really knew ourselves we would.  We also have to realize that what is normal to our experience is not universally “normal”.  For example, any statement beginning with “everybody knows” is more often a false statement than not, both in that it is false that everybody knows, and that it often is just an affirmation of a false assumption, such as “everybody knows that the secret to success is hard work.” It is an observable fact for many that their own hard work does not guarantee success, and that many, many others enjoy success without hard work.  We cannot live without assumptions.  You simply cannot recalculate every single possibility before making daily decisions. We can, however, check assumptions on important things twice before making bigger decisions.  I contend that when deciding how to treat one another, every decision is important.

So, while we do not do well to be naïve or gullible, we can entertain the possibility that someone deserves the benefit of the doubt, and recognize that there is always doubt about what someone is trying to communicate.  Don’t assume that a difference between you and someone else is the primary context of any statement they make.  Let me give you another parable:

I walk up to the express lane at the grocery where I always pay with a debit card.  I don’t notice a hand written sign stuck on the pole that says “Cash only, card reader broken” amongst all of the other distractions, so after the sale is rung up, I present my card.  Little do I know that I am the fifth person in twenty minutes to do so, but the manager must come over to void the transaction each time and always treats the cashier badly when this occurs.  She snaps and says “can’t you people read?”

Upon hearing “you people” I can assume a context of “people who keep doing what you just did”, or I might assume “people of your class”, or “people of your ethnicity” or any number of other ways to say “people different from me”, or I could recognize that I can’t be sure which it was and that no good will come of escalating the situation by assuming the worst.  I am probably safe in assuming that the cashier was being rude, but I need not assume it was a personal attack of any significant kind.  If, in my response, I say “what do you mean, ‘you people’?”, it should not be a rhetorical question for which I am not prepared to accept an answer that is less offensive than I thought, even if, like the rude cashier, I have suffered some treatment (in my case, the ‘you people’ treatment) from a lot of people who I think should have known better.

At the beginning of this talk, I alluded to the fact that communication is never complete.  To the extent that we know any mind, we really only have direct experience of our own.  We don’t tend to sit around musing on the epistemological implications of this, we just live it.  We can’t quite know exactly what someone else means, but we can dwell on what it might mean to us.  We hear the boss say “we need to cut back on bonuses” and hear “my bonus is not big enough, so I’ll justify raising it by taking some of yours”.  Perhaps someone says “family values” and we hear “okay to pick on single parents”, or someone calls us “you people” and we hear “all people of [this or that] ethnicity/ political bent”.  We hear these things partly because repeat reinforcement of them teach us that there is a high correlation between what some people say, and what it means to us.  But consider again the stories. The woman on the subway did not see another person with problems of his own, she saw one of them or people like that.  A two dimensional character that fit an image. The cashier, also saw a stream of customers, a necessary part of her job that all just want groceries and don’t seem to care what they put her through to get them.  This is not inherently a character flaw to view the world this way.  We are wired to do it.  You simply can’t have a personal relationship with ever face you see.  But when we interact, we pierce that plane, cross that line between a two dimensional image and another mind behind the face.  At that point they are not just another composite character no different from the last one.  They have no idea that you’ve explained something to five other people before them, and they are not just too dense to understand without explaining it six times, it is the first time for someone new, despite our natural tendency to think “I’ve told you people this over and over.” Likewise, others are dealing with the same mental limitation.  They don’t know us better than they know the last guy who intruded into their world with his own problems, and they will likely give us the ‘you people’ treatment just as we would them.  Do we assume that it is they who are prejudiced? What is prejudice but assumptions, in the first place? Our assumptions are prejudice just as theirs are, by definition of ‘assumption’ and ‘prejudice’.

So, what, then, can we do to break through these barriers to communication that inhibit understanding?  I suggest that we give peace a chance.  Give those who seem to be insensitive to us the benefit of the doubt at least long enough to make sense of the alternative to offense.  Some people may well be attacking you or your beliefs, but many are just obliviously using words that you have come to see as ‘code words’ for something you are inclined to take offense at, while trying to communicate a completely different sentiment on a different subject altogether.  The problem with euphemisms in general is that they are intended to say one thing and imply another.  They are designed to obscure communication on purpose, and they constantly invite miscommunication as a result.  If you grew up where honest but low income people were called the ‘simple folk’, but I grew up where they refer to the mentally challenged as “simple folk”, then someone hearing us talk may think we equate being poor with being mentally challenged.  Others may actually use the confusion to try to pit us against each other, knowing full well that we have no quarrel, just a lapse in communication.

The answer, I think, is that we must listen.  Let people be wrong, let them tell their side, listen as though we want to know what they really mean, not just listen for what we expect to hear.  Listen with an open heart.  Listen with love.


About UncleJoe

I'm a middle aged male who has attended a seminary as well as receiving a degree in philosophy from a secular university neither of which would particularly impress you if I said which. I have pondered and puzzled questions of faith and the lack thereof for many years. I don't not claim to be holy, or an expert on everything, simply observant and interested. I'll make bold statements about what I see as the way things are, and you don't have to take my word for it. Call me on it. I am here for the discussion.
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