James 1:19-27

The Gift of an Ear

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James 1:19-27

The Gift of an Ear

Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen

Here is a letter Robert Raines passes on, written some years ago by a seventeen-year-old:

“Dear Folks: Thank you for everything but I am going to Chicago and try and start some new kind of life. You asked me why…I gave you so much trouble, and the answer is easy for me to give you, but I am wondering if you will understand.

“Remember when I was about six or seven and I used to want you just to listen to me? I remember all the nice things you gave me … and I was really happy with the things – for about a week … but the rest of the time … I really didn’t want presents. I just wanted all the time for you to listen to me like I was somebody who felt things too, because I remember even when I was young I felt things. But you said you were busy. Mom, you are a wonderful cook, and you had everything so clean and you were tired so much from doing all those things that made you busy; but you know something, Mom? I would have liked crackers and peanut butter just as well if you had only sat down with me awhile during the day and said to me: ‘Tell me all about it so I can maybe help you understand.’

“And when Donna came I couldn’t understand why everyone made so much fuss because I didn’t think it was my fault that her hair is curly and her skin so white, and she doesn’t have to wear glasses with such thick lenses. Her grades were better too, weren’t they? If Donna ever has children, I hope you will tell her to just pay some attention to the one who doesn’t smile very much because that one may really be crying inside.

“I think that all the kids who are doing so many things that grown-ups are tearing out their hair worrying about are really looking for somebody that will have time to listen a few minutes and who really and truly will treat them as they would a grown-up who might be useful to them, you know – polite to them. If you folks had ever said to me: ‘Pardon me’ when you interrupted me, I’d have dropped dead! If anyone asks you where I am, tell them I’ve gone looking for somebody with time because I’ve got a lot of things I want to talk about. Your son.”

Hard to get a hearing in our time, isn’t it? Seems like everybody is talking, and nobody is listening. Words come to us from every direction, billboards, cocktail parties, bustling crowds, and now even the computer talks. But who is listening? Where are those who really take the time and energy, exercise the attentiveness to hear?

The Wall Street Journal tells us that American parents spend less than fifteen minutes a week in serious discussion with their children. The boy said, “Dad and I had words this morning, but I didn’t get to use mine.”

Why do we need someone who will listen? Lots of reasons. At times of mental confusion and emotional turmoil we become such a scene of chaos inside, that only as someone will take the time to hear us out, let us talk, do we come to a measure of internal organization and self-control again.

And we need a listening ear to break the loneliness and sense of isolation that we all feel from time to time, especially when our troubles threaten to overwhelm us. Loneliness is, after all, not the absence of other bodies. It is the sense that no one understands or cares, that we are essentially alone with our struggles and troubles.

And, above all, we feel diminished, unimportant, of no consequence, when no one will take us seriously enough to hear what we have to say. In Arthur Miller’s play, After the Fall, husband and wife, Quentin and Louise, are talking. Louise says, “The way you behave toward me, I don’t… exist. People are supposed to find out about each other. I am not all that uninteresting, Quentin. Many people, men and women, think I am interesting. Quentin: Well, I-I-I … don’t know what you mean. Louise: You have no conception of what a woman is… Quentin: But I do pay attention – just last night I read you my whole brief. Louise: Quentin, you think reading a brief to a woman is talking to her? Quentin: But that’s what was on my mind. Louise: But if that’s all that’s on your mind, what do you need a wife for? Quentin: Now what kind of question is that? Louise: Quentin, that is the question? Quentin: What’s the question? Louise: What am I to you? Do you … you, you ever ask me anything? Anything personal? Quentin: But Louise, what am I supposed to ask you? I know you. Louise: No, you don’t.”

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In contrast, there is the experience of the late but famous longshoreman-philosopher-author, Eric Hofer. He was cared for as a child by a Bavarian peasant woman, after his mother had died. For about eight years during this period of his life, Eric Hofer was blind. Years later, he had this to say about the woman who cared for him: “This woman, Martha was her name, took loving care of me. I remember she was a big woman, and she must have really loved me because I remember those eight years of blindness in my childhood as essentially a happy time of my life. I remember a lot of talk and a lot of laughter. I must have talked a great deal as a child because Martha used to say to me again-and-again, ‘Do you remember when you said this? Do you remember what you said that?’ And I realized that she had been listening to me and remembered what I said. And all my life I have had this feeling about myself: that what I think and what I say are worth listening to and remembering. This is the gift she gave me!”

Love your neighbor, says the old book. Well, perhaps the greatest gift of love is the gift of an ear – for by it we enable one another to break through confusion of mind, loneliness of heart, and we grant one another worth and feeling of importance. I don’t know if that is exactly the kind of listening the writer of the little New Testament letter of James had in mind when he calls us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and be angry, irritated with one another. But I do note that one half of real religion as he defines it is to visit the orphans and widows in their distress, that is, precisely those who are alone, isolated, troubled, desperately needing a sense that they count.

The gift of an ear for one another. The love that enables the time and trouble, the concentration and empathy that allows us to really hear one another. So why don’t we do it? Why do we have such difficulty listening? There are several reasons that come to mind.

In the first place it takes time. Again and again I run into marriages where there is clearly a communication problem. The partners both point to this. We don’t communicate, they are quick to admit. And yet when you ask about their schedules, their routine, it becomes apparent that they are seldom in settings conducive to communicating, speaking and above all listening. Other things have become more important, work schedule, social obligations, care for the children. And because of preoccupation with all these good things, ironically the marriage itself heads for the rocks, threatening it all. It takes the sacrifice of time not only to talk but to listen, truly listen.

And then it takes transcendence of ourselves, our own interests and preoccupations. We are often too full of ourselves, our own worries and concerns, our agendas and ambitions, to truly hear the other. A wife of a corporate executive tells how she hates the parties she has to attend with her husband. “When I go to one I am turned off by the level of conversation – everybody chattering away at each other but nobody really listening to what the other is saying. Everybody just talks by one another.”

It takes time, it takes transcendence of ourselves and it takes trust. Why is it that we often fail to listen to the child, to the spouse, even to the friend? We are afraid of what we will hear, afraid to let the other person be who they are, afraid of what we might learn, afraid of the pain we may be led to share. You can’t really listen unless you can trust that whatever you hear is not the end of the world, that the process is good, that you too have something to learn, learn about yourself and life, learn that God is with you in the sharing of pain and joy of that spouse, that child, that friend.

Which is why the capacity and willingness to listen to one another rests finally in our willingness to listen to our God. For it is there that we find the wisdom to better order our days, the trust to truly care about the other, and the confidence that enables us to risk hearing what we need to hear.

Have you ever heard God speak? Bin Laden has. A rabbi in Brooklyn has. I’ve met some people in institutions who have. Isn’t it interesting? If we talk to God we are considered religious. If he talks to us, we are considered crazy.

Yet this old faith talks a great deal about listening for the voice of God – urges it upon us. In fact this is what it means by the word “prayer” much more than it means endless chatter. Quiet waiting, listening for words to sort themselves out, for intuitions to take shape and form, for a sense of affirmation and direction to come. Because we have to contend with a lot of other voices, pressing us to be this, do that, the voices of peers and crowd, the voices of the powerful and proud. The voice of protesters and polls. Listen, of course, but not as if they were the voice of God. Crossfire – people who never listen. Only fire salvos. Daniel Boorstin once said that the longer the pause, the more illuminating the thought that follows it. But long pauses do not make good television, do they.

The story is told of Albert Einstein when he lived at Princeton. A learned society invited him to speak and finally he came. He stood at the podium and stared at them for a bit, then said, “I am terribly sorry. I have nothing to say.” Then he walked out of the hall, leaving the audience puzzled, not to say stunned. Two weeks later the chairman of the society got a telephone call. “This is Albert Einstein. I have thought of something.” They invited him again.

We hear the unreflective voices every day. What are the colleagues thinking? What are the other parents doing? What do the experts advise? Voices arguing now this way, now that, bearing down on us from tube and screen in contradictions that leave us confused and adrift, without center, moorings, direction, individuality, critical capacity, character, staying power. This is a hard day in which to know often what to think. But let us at least struggle to truly make up our own mind.

Above all, we desperately need time and quiet to listen for the voice of deeper traditions, the voice of a transcendent faith, the voice of God. James says it. “Be slow to anger. Rid yourself of all bad habits, welcome with humility the word implanted deep within you that has the power to preserve your soul.” For then perspective comes, priorities fall into place, peace and power are restored, and we are kept untarnished by an alien culture.

Dr. Susan Jones said it, “Those people who live in a constantly noisy environment and who neglect to go inside their temple to listen to the silence are depriving themselves of one of life’s most profound experiences. Unmitigated loudness breeds agitation, aggression, and disharmony. Noise deafens the mind to the inner voice, to our connection to life, to peace, to joy.

I know that’s how it is with me. If I take the time to listen, and that is a big “if,” in time memories come which put a lot of things in perspective, ideas surface which stimulate creativity, visions happen which grant hope and future, old affirmations return in strength, granting confidence and courage and hope.

The friend said he found himself up against the wall in the face of responsibilities that had become increasingly overwhelming. He found himself profoundly disturbed by the necessity of letting a number of employees go. He found it increasingly difficult to see with any clarity an acceptable future. In spite of his careful organizational habits, he found his mind flooding with the accumulating details of the job. He found it hard to think objectively and stay focused. He was increasingly irritable and short of patience, something quite untypical of him. He found himself exhausted at days end and sleeping not well at night. He increasingly worried about his health. In short he seemed to be losing control of things, life, his own person.

In the midst of one particularly busy schedule, he knew he had to get away, go somewhere for a little peace and quiet, get ahold of himself. Told his secretary he would not be reachable for the rest of the day. In his car began to drive aimlessly until he found himself near the beach, parked, walked up and down until he began to calm within. The feelings of near panic began to subside a bit. A variety of thoughts marched to and fro through his mind. Although a fairly religious person, God was not particularly on his mind. Now this is his story generally as I remember it. But what he said then I recall almost word for word. He said, Then it came, nothing audible, just a thought, words out of left field.

“It is not all up to you.” How odd, he thought. He supposed he knew that, had learned that somewhere long ago. But he had never really heard them as he did now. And somehow the words felt liberating. “It’s not all up to you.” He began to think about dimensions of his situation that there was no point in trying to manage. Could he live with the worst that might happen? Had he missed some resources? Why hadn’t he talked to someone? And now he was, to me. “It is not all up to you.” When he told me the story he had difficulty saying anything like “God spoke to me.” But he was sure that a very powerful word had come to him, a word not his own, which had rescued him in his hour of need and he hoped would continue to do so.

So may we all find enough quiet in our lives to “welcome with humility the word implanted deep within, the word that has the power to preserve our souls.” Listen.

Copyright 2003, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.