The Privilege of Listening


One of life’s crucial lessons is that we are responsible for how we use our ability to pay attention.  We are stewards of our capacities to notice, to focus, and to consider people, the world around us, and God.   We choose what to do with our attention, and failure to choose is itself a choice: unless we direct our attention, we are choosing distraction, diversion and confusion.  We’re opting for impersonal chatter and incessant churn rather than personal conversation and deepening intimacy.  We’re settling for noise instead of cherishing voices. 

Theologian Paul Tillich said: “The first duty of love is to listen.”  I would change only one word in that sentence: “The first privilege—not the first duty, the first privilege—of love is to listen.”  If I love you, I will listen to you.  If I say I love you but do not listen to you, you have every reason to doubt  the sincerity and depth of my love.  In practical, day-to-day terms love has to do with time and attention; and, for the most part, time and attention are about listening, genuinely listening, to the people whom we profess to love. 

Such listening is a vast privilege which some of us leave unexercised, because it can be costly.  It comes at the price of humility and vulnerability.  To listen is to admit: “I don’t already know everything I need to know—about myself, about the person sitting across from me, about the world, about myself and about God.”  It is to acknowledge that there are limits to my experience and therefore to my awareness.  It is to be more interested in being in relationship than in being right.  Listening is only possible if I am willing to let down my defenses, lay aside my preconceptions, put away my prejudices, surrender my prior conclusions, and open myself to the possibility of changing my mind, my heart, and my behavior based on what I learn.

Pastoral Counselor Wayne Oates used to say that he hadn’t witnessed a healing by the “laying on of hands” but that he had often experienced others’ being healed by the “laying on of ears.”  Such restorative listening is a gift we are graced to give each other.