Some things in life are so simple, it is easy to overlook their importance. Most of these simple things nearly everyone knows, but not everyone does them. I am sure that is why when someone does a simple thing, it can seem so profound. They are usually free of cost and make a situation better and, often, more pleasant. Recently, I experienced one of these simple things. In this case I happened to be on the doing end of the action.
I call this simple thing offering a listening ear. Obviously, that is not a profound description. Nearly everyone can hear. Most of us don’t think this is special. Unaware we pronounce hearing cannot be special if everyone does it. At one level, this is true. Except for the person who is deaf, hearing is no big deal. We hear all sorts of things every day of our lives. In fact, hearing is so present in life, we give it no thought.
However, spiritual sages through the ages know there is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening presupposes that we hear, but listening adds a dimension to the hearing. I would say that listening adds the dimension of paying attention. Listening demands that we pay attention to what another person is saying. In fact, listening is always about the other person. Maybe that is why there is so little good listening going on in our world today.
Too many of us are too pre-occupied or too selfish to be listeners. To be a listener takes my issues off the agenda and puts the other person’s agenda before mine. If I listen, I probably am not going to get what I want. What’s in it for me is not part of the listening equation! Some would consider stupid.
If we unpack the components of good listening, we can recognize why it is such a profound experience. And if we understand the dynamics of good listening, perhaps we will be more inclined to practice it in our lives. And we can hope others might practice it toward us when we need or want to good listener to pay attention to us.
The first component of a listening ear is recognizing that it is always a gift. Of course, I can try to listen to myself. That is good, but it is still happening inside the container called “me.” The true listening ear is someone else’s ear that is focused on me and which I receive as a gift. Someone else is taking the time, making the effort, and actually paying attention to me. This gift is certainly an experience of becoming special. I am the center of attention. My agenda is the focus of the moment. This leads to the second characteristic of the listening ear.
This gift of listening, which I am given, is always a form of care. Even if my issues are rooted in pain and suffering and I am spilling my woes, the listening ear is still an ear of care. The listening ear may not heal my pain nor relieve the suffering, but someone has taken the trouble to listen and to care. The caring is a form of sharing, even if nothing else seems to happen. The gift of care is a rare gift these days.
In most instances the listening ear that is a caring ear moves to deeper levels. Even if I am coming from a place of pain and suffering, the listening, caring ear moves to the level of empathy. The listening ear has “moved in” with me to that place of woe. And even if nothing immediately can be done about it, I am not alone in that hurt place. That in and of itself is some solace. But there is more depth to come.
The ear of empathy usually goes deeper to become compassion. This is where the listener actually begins in some fashion to take on some pain and suffering with me and, if possible, on my behalf. Certainly in the Christian tradition, Jesus models this suffering servant mode of listening. The Buddhists also have the bodhisattva, the compassionate one who acts lovingly toward others. At this level, compassion is healing. It may not bring the miracle the sufferer wants. The lame may not literally leap again. With spiritual healing, the lame may become well, although she or he still limps. That is the power of the listening ear.
The good news about all this is anyone can offer a listening ear. It does not require special education. There is no ordination necessary, no classes to attend or tuition to pay. Surely every normal person has the capacity to discover and deploy a listening ear. Opportunities abound. Every day in every place it is easy to recognize someone could use a listening ear.
I am convinced if more of us could do this---around the world for sure---there would be such loving and peace-making, conflicts would have a harder time of breaking out and escalating. It is easy to see this is not just an individual thing. Groups and even nations can do it too. But the same process will have to take place. You have to set aside your own agenda. You have to be willing not to be self-centered. This is why it is hard to do.
And it is why I think the listening ear is usually a spiritual issue. Without the spiritual dimension, I am not likely willing to set myself aside. I am not ready to be other-centered. And if I claim to be spiritually and am not willing, then I should wonder about my own spirituality.