After returning from a few meetings where the focus was justice and sustainable living, sometimes called eco-justice, I have found myself pondering the importance of listening. Listening builds upon sensorial learning acquired through hearing: hearing sounds, hearing speech, and even hearing silence for silence can paradoxically speak loudly. I hear the sounds that others emit, that nature emits, that silence emits. I hear the sounds on the radio, on the sky train, on the television, and in the noisy restaurant. The interpretation of what I hear is called listening, the cognitive appropriation of the sounds I hear.
Listening is the first act of discourse between myself and an other, between myself and the world/universe, between myself and a silent God who sometimes speaks. On another level listening means that I listen to the sounds that echo in the depth of my conscience while taking steps to align my life closer to the conscience I hear. So, listening has an outer and an inner dimension and is an important part of human life.
But, listening is not always easy. In order for me to listen I need to be clear within myself, so that I hear what is spoken rather than what I want to hear. Sometimes I may need to pass through a purgative phase so as to be clear in my hearing. When I allow myself to go through this I find that I am a better listener. For example, in my first full time pastoral assignment over thirty years ago I found that I had to unlearn all the philosophy and theology I had previously learned simply because it did not serve the folks I served as a chaplain. I had to unlearn a theoretical way in order to be open to a relational way. Thus, the conversations I had with others as we drank coffee in the soup kitchen, road the elevator, worked together on various projects taught me so much more that all the books I’d read. What began to emerge, as I found my pastoral feet, was a way of listening that encouraged people to speak from and about their experiences of life. The unlearning phase was sometimes difficult since I had to pass through cognitive confusion to affective openness, but it was this affective openness that formed the basis of my listening to others.
Over the years this way of affective listening, listening with the whole self, became my mainstay. In listening with my whole self my affective and my cognitive faculties are in dialogue with one another often resulting in better comprehension. Listening with the whole self leads more to a listening ‘with’ than a listening ‘to’. This listening with the whole self helps to deepen my relationships with others. It helps me to become a better agent of change and a better person in this complex world of ours. For me listening with the whole self is necessary so as to continue to be able to build a world where, in the words of Peter Maurin (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement), ‘it is easier for people to be good’.