As a priest, I frequently am asked for advice, and I willingly give it. At times, I give it even when not asked. Not surprisingly, that does not always go well, as when a while back one woman I was trying to help basically told me to ‘just shut up and listen.’ Again recently, two similar experiences have shown me that I am still too quick to speak. I need to learn to listen more.
I believe our society is losing the ability to listen, and this is harming us in many ways.
On a larger, societal scale, regarding polemical issues such as - race, economics, family, and abortion - we are either talking at the other side or about them. We rarely speak with one another; that is, we do not listen. We reserve our serious conversations for people we know will agree with us. Without question, the media shares a significant responsibility for our current state: often presenting a very slanted view of things [both sides can be guilty of this], or even manipulating information for a political end. However, we cannot lay all the blame with the media, since their economic model is to give the consumers what they want.
We often do not listen to generations distinct from our own. Those who are older frequently scoff at the superficiality of Millennials, whereas the Millennial response has become a sarcastic, ‘OK Boomer.’ [It seems we in Generation X are left out]. If we show little respect for the other and what they have to say, why should they say it? This breakdown of communication undermines family life.
The Church is still divided into camps of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Here too the division is emotional, and at times, acrimonious. Accusations abound. One side calls the other ‘heretical!’ The other side responds in kind by shouting ‘judgmental!’ Invitations to converse are usually met with protestations that the other group is not interested in real dialogue.
There are several societal factors that contribute to our inability to listen. Some principal ones include:
Noise - We are so busy distracting ourselves with music, videos, games and television that we hardly notice the people around us. When I recently asked a youth minister about his work, he replied that he could not get the middle school kids to come to events, since they were too occupied with their phones.
Soundbite Culture – We are so inundated with headlines, captions, Memes, Tweets, and slogans – that we think we are grasping complex issues with just two or three words. Additionally, the sheer volume of such information has us minimally informed on many subjects, while rarely taking a deeper dive into any one of them.
Relativism – If truth is merely personal, then what we are saying is that your belief, or mine, is simply a preference. There is no common ground or point of reference, which we then share - neither to argue nor to agree. The ‘tolerance’ of each person having his or her own truth, not only makes conversation banal but will also crumble as soon as real decisions have to be made, such as with abortion – you either take the child’s life or spare it. You cannot do both.
Emotionalism – This is when a person makes decisions based primarily on feelings. While emotions are good of themselves, untethered from reason they can get us into trouble: we fell nothing during prayer, so we stop; we ‘fall out of love’ so we divorce. Additionally, secular society now considers it a grievous crime against good manners to upset someone, thereby placing superficial sense of contentment above the good and the true. Therefore, we avoid difficult conversations altogether.
Listening is neither agreement with ideas nor approval of behavior. Listening without interrupting or arguing is not a denial of your convictions. It is simply listening. It shows that you respect the other as a person. Listening exhibits the belief that you can learn something from the other. Listening attentively and respectfully, interjecting only to clarify if you understand, is probably the best way to lay the groundwork for the other to listen to you.
As Catholics, we need not fear dialogue since there is no truth that can undermine our Catholic faith. However, that confidence will not spare us the need to deepen and strengthen our own convictions in light of what we learn. After any disconcerting conversation go back to Christ in prayer and ask for light. Then, study. The Church has answers. Do we know them well? Read what the Catechism, the Magisterium, and the saints have to say on the subject. If you do not initially understand, trust God and the teachings of his Church, and light will eventually come. This will be a journey.
We must learn to listen to one another, especially to those who think differently. This requires humility, maturity, and effort, but the fruits will be numerous. We will probably find that we agree with one another more than we realized. Respect will grow, and our families, our Church, and our nation will begin to heal.
Fr. John Bullock, LC
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