Is anybody listening?

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In 2007, Jennifer Trafton, who then was the managing editor of Christian History & Biography magazine, wrote, “… I believe that learning about the history of Christianity should be first about listening — really listening — before judging and before acting. History can teach us humility when we learn to understand the world through another person’s experience in another time and place.”

When I first became a social worker in the 1970s, the first continuing education class that the state of Tennessee required me to take was a course called “Active Listening.” The premise was that people do very little true listening. We pretend to listen but, even as the other person is speaking, we are formulating our response.

In order to hear what a person is saying, I learned, we must quiet our minds, lay aside our own opinions for a bit, and concentrate on what is being said. I discovered that listening — really listening — as Trafton said, is, indeed, a very rare occurrence.

When I was in college I learned that, “all behavior is motivated and has meaning for that individual.” What all that means is that people do what they do, say what they say, and think what they think because it makes sense to them at the time. Even if they are insane, the principle still applies.

So, to understand someone, one must be able to listen. To be understood, one must have someone who is willing to listen. And there is the problem in our current day. People are thinking, saying, acting, and even shouting without any real attempt to communicate, because communication requires active listening.

I probably shouldn’t admit to this but one of the least favorite aspects of my profession is marriage counseling. Why? Because by the time they get to me, reasonable communication has all but ceased. They both want to be heard but neither wants to really listen. When the spouse says, “You never listen to me!” they are probably right. But the odds are that neither do they. More often than not, each wishes to share the faults of the other and they want the counselor to “fix” their spouse. They, themselves, however, are just fine.

If communication is not two-way, then there is no communication. If one is not listening, there will never be resolution in a way that enhances relationships. Let me share a personal example.

As a life-long Southerner, I am perfectly willing to listen to the voices that want to peacefully and properly resolve the issue of Confederate statues. I am willing to listen to how those folks feel, how they are impacted, why they want them removed, and what those statues mean to the people who are offended by them.

On the other hand, as the great-great grandson of a Confederate infantryman who spent time in a Union POW camp, when someone says, as they did on social media, that “those people were traitors and terrorists,” it makes me angry. Why?

Because in the understanding of the day, and in their own minds, they were not traitors any more than the Colonial Revolutionaries were traitors. They believed that the states, who entered into the Union freely, could freely depart from that Union. Both the Colonials and the Confederates fought to establish a separate nation, not conquer the nation they wished to leave.

And terrorists? As far as I can tell, the most famous general who employed true terror tactics and opted for “total war,” including war on the civilian population, was Union General William T. Sherman who cut a swath of destruction and death sixty miles wide from north Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean. Sherman was not an abolitionist and did not believe in “Negro equality.” He coined the phrase “hard war,” which today we know as “total warfare” in which civilians were targeted, especially their property, livestock, crops, and homes. If the South had won the war, he would likely have been hanged as a war criminal.

You see, if you are not willing to listen — really listen — to others who have a different viewpoint, however wrong or insane you think them to be, then you do not want to dialogue. You want to pontificate or to simply argue.

Remember, “all behavior is motivated and has meaning for that individual.” I am willing to listen to why individuals want to kneel at the national anthem and even burn the flag. Are those individuals willing to listen to why others revere the flag, why they fought and/or served under that banner, and why they are so offended when it is treated in a way they deem disrespectful?

And we could explore almost any issue and ask those questions. When marital trouble arises, is the husband willing to really listen to his spouse? Is the wife willing to really listen to him? All without interrupting, defending oneself, or trying to have a comeback that will wither the other? If not, then any talking is a waste of time and breath.

Everybody has a reason or reasons for thinking the way they do, acting the way they do, or speaking the way they do. Everybody. Maybe those reasons are faulty. Perhaps the person is dead wrong. It happens.

But insulting, demeaning, shouting, screaming, destroying, or threatening violence will never convince anybody of anything.

When I was a social worker, I was a good listener. Most of the time things went well. But not always. There was a man who had two children that were terribly neglected — dirty, poorly clothed, and hungry. There was no mother in the picture. After months of futility trying to work with this father, and as a last resort, I removed the children from the home. Even after that, I tried to work with him with the goal of the children’s return.

One day, I was at a fast food restaurant and my family and I were eating burgers in the car. My wife said, “David, who is that man? He keeps staring at us.” It was the man whose children I had removed.

I got out the car, walked over, and offered a friendly greeting and asked him, “What’s up?” He said, “I was just sitting here watching your little family and wondering how you’re going to feel when you come home one day and they’re all gone.”

I leaned into the car, grabbed him by the shirt, got in his face and, through gritted teeth, said, “If I see you anywhere near my family, I’ll kill you on the spot.” I meant it. I got back in the car and we drove away.

His case was transferred to another social worker. A couple of years later, the same man killed a deputy sheriff and, as far as I know is still in prison, if he’s not dead.

Much depends on listening and hearing what the other person has to say. But it takes both parties or both sides of an issue.

So, is anybody listening? Well, if they are, it’s not obvious. That’s the danger. When people stop listening and cease communicating, the battle lines are drawn. Positions become entrenched. Attitudes harden. Swords are drawn. In 1966, during a turbulent time in the nation’s history, Buffalo Springfield released a song, “Stop Children What’s That Sound?” whose lyrics could have been penned today:

“There’s something happening here

What it is ain’t exactly clear

There’s a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware

(Chorus after each verse) I think it’s time we stop,

children, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong

Young people speaking their minds

Getting so much resistance from behind

What a field-day for the heat

A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly say, hooray for our side

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you’re always afraid

You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

Stop, hey, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

Stop, now, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

Stop, children, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down”

We survived that era. Whether we survive this one is yet to be seen.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

1 COMMENT

  1. I read your entire article so of course I am sharpening my listening skills as well. I too had a family member (father of great-grandmother) who was a POW in the Civil War. He was in the infamous open-air prison on Belle Isle in Richmond where conditions were described as subhuman. He died within the year that Richmond fell. In past research, I found that he could have been worse off though (if that’s possible) had he ended up in the nightmarish camp of Andersonville (Ga).

    Obviously I have a different perspective of the war through his eyes since he joined the US Army in 1856 and after duties in Ft Capon (FL); was later stationed at Ft Sumter. And yes, he was there for the first shots of the war when the US military installation was fired on.

    Perhaps to no fault of your own, it appears that your thoughts about the war may have been shaped by the campaign of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. No not just monument placements we see today, but more with their successful work of demanding school text book reading (like in the Tri-Cities area) that held a very specific southern point of view.

    The northern perspective of the treasonous south is evidenced in many a biting political cartoons back in the day. One in particular was published in 1865, titled “A Proper Family Reunion.” The drawing / political message was no doubt influenced by a popular joke that was told by Union soldiers in camp.

    They described the devil stirring a cauldron of treasonous toddy. Beside the devil was Judas, Benedict Arnold, and newly arrived Jefferson Davis. Judas turns to the devil and says that he (Judas) doesn’t belong there … for he only betrayed one Man. Yep, that was the common Union and northern sentiment back in the day and thanks for listening Pastor Epps.