The Gift of Listening


In my recent post “Shoddy Virtues,” I quoted John Steinbeck to the effect that the act of giving can often be an ego-inflating sham, while gracious receiving requires wisdom and humility. In that post I did celebrate the possibility of giving with love and lamented selfish receiving, but Steinbeck’s observation that those qualities are often reversed seems spot on.

There is one act of receiving, however, that strikes me as almost always so wise and humble that it itself becomes a gift. I am of course referring to the receptive gift of listening.

I was in New York over the weekend, attending the wedding reception of my younger son. As at most weddings, many of the guests were meeting for the first time. It seemed to me that there was a poignant call from many of these strangers: “Please see me. Please hear me. Please get me.” Of course, if everyone is wanting to be seen and heard, there is not much room left for seeing and hearing. Conversations remain superficial while each person assesses the impact they are having on the other: “This is what I do, this is what I have done, this is where I have been, this is what I have accomplished. See how smart/courageous/beautiful/handsome I am.”

I see nothing “wrong” with this. On the contrary, there is a sweet innocence in this young part of our human selves. But if this part becomes the whole, if it cannot be an opening to deeper realms of being, then all the seeing and hearing in the world will simply be empty calories: all fluff and no stuff. In his famous play, “No Exit,” Jean-Paul Sartre offers a powerful image. One of the women in Hell is distressed by the lack of mirrors. Another woman tells her to come close and closer still until she can see herself in the other’s eyes. How sad it is to feel real only when one exists in the eyes of others. Perhaps that is as close to Hell as one can get, shining only by reflecting the light emanating from another.

It seems to me Gabriel Marcel was correct in saying that underneath the need to be seen and heard on the level of “what” I am, lies the most fundamental of human calls: “BE with me.” This means, I think, that we long to share our loves and fears, confusions and mistakes as well as our successes, and to be embraced in the warmth of heartfelt listening. It also means being comfortable with silence.

I used to ask my students to imagine that if Jesus or the Buddha or Rabbi Zusya or Rumi showed up at the door of our classroom and looked in at us, what would they see, and what would they wish to hear? I, of course, don’t know, but I like to think that they–and all like them–would see and love the divine spark in every one of us. They might ask us “How is it with you?” and be truly interested and perhaps surprised by our answer.

Thus, the wise and humble listening that I am attempting to understand is characterized by a sincere and unprotected openness and vulnerability. The fundamental value is not only to share our common humanity, but also to glimpse the fascinating vista of the unique human life before me. For I deeply believe Hermann Hesse’s insight that this woman with whom I am now speaking and to whom I am listening is an instance of humanity never seen before and never to be seen again. What a shame it would be to miss the unexpected beauty, the touching sadness, and the messy humor that lie at the heart of this person’s–and every person’s–journey.

Surely, some folks we meet are not yet ready to make that shift from the head to the heart, and their talk remains protected and infused with ego. For me this calls for the gift of patience, of which I must admit I still have a limited supply. But if I am in a strong place, I try to ask a question or two as an invitation to a deeper encounter. Sometimes that invitation is accepted, and the dance of love begins.

Finally, in the jazz world, when a patron who seemed to know how to listen would enter a club, we musicians would tell each other, “someone is here with ears,” and our playing would move up a notch. I am new to blogging, and one of the things that has joyfully surprised me is the wonderful quality of listening on the part of so many new and old friends. I have experienced an unanticipated sense of shared endeavor and mutual support in this community, for which I am truly grateful. Who would have thought that blogging could be such a venue for the gift of listening?

2 thoughts on “The Gift of Listening

  1. juliemontinieri

    Have you read Brene Brown on vulnerability? Her first book is “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are”. I just ordered her newer title, Daring Greatly. She writes about what you’ve noted here, at your son’s reception — the courage it takes to come from the heart. ❤


    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Thank you for pointing me toward some good reading, Julie. LIke you, I believe that having the courage to be vulnerable is one of the great secrets of a happy life, a joyful parenting, and a loving relationship.



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