Opinion Columns & Blogs

Is anybody listening?

What is Trump saying? What is Hillary promising? We’ve seldom seen such conflict and anger and disagreement and dissent. Is anybody listening? We can’t even hear who’s talking. The fact-checkers are working frantically but they can’t seem to penetrate the falling balloons and waving banners and shouting fans. Who’s really listening anyway?

But it’s not just politics. The great writer Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, once quipped: “When I read an author’s passage where his opinion agrees with mine, I say: ‘excellent.’ When we differ, I say he’s mistaken.”

And the same thing happens with religion, doesn’t it? Just read the letters to the editors when a column opposes someone’s view of Christianity. Very seldom is there any discussion — it’s usually flat-out denial. “There can be only one view, one truth; I’ve got it and you don’t, and I’ve got the whole Southern Baptist Convention behind me.” The great Jewish theologian, Maimonides, once said: “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so if even the whole world disagrees with it.”

But those are just words. Our reality today is framed and molded by the images we see and the opinions we hear on TV and from our church pulpits. If we have conservative leanings, we turn on Fox News; it we favor the left, we hear only the voices of MSNBC. If we have grown up in a religiously conservative environment, we have a church or synagogue for that, and vice-versa. Actually, we rarely truly listen to anyone; we listen for the things we want to hear.

The great Albert Einstein seemed to think we just couldn’t help it. He said: “Very few people are capable of forming opinions which differ from their own prejudices” (essay to Leo Baeck, 1953). And this would explain the terrible black/white divide we have today in America. How many white people really understand Black Lives Matter and how many black people really understand Blue Lives Matter? Can anybody really listen?

However, even though Einstein says it is very improbable, I’m finding a few white people in Macon, like Richard Keil and Andy Manis, trying to understand the black issues, and black people like Charles Richardson and Horace Holmes listening intently to white concerns. I know it’s not easy. It’s like taking two completely different elements like hydrogen and oxygen and mixing them together to make a clear stream of water. It works when it’s done correctly, but it’s explosive like the Hindenburg airship when it isn’t.

However, if the races can begin to make it work, what about politics and religion? What if our congressional seats in the House and Senate were not divided between Republicans and Democrats? What if they were integrated? What if every Christian in Middle Georgia went to a service at a mosque or a synagogue three or four times a year, and then reported back what they had actually seen and heard?

Can’t we — can’t I — begin to listen? When someone starts to say something I disagree with, when I hear screaming voices in my head, when I’m ready to explode, can’t I:

1. Close my eyes and take three deep breaths.

2. Repeat in my own words what I think the person said and meant.

3. Ask her if my version of her idea is correct, and if not, listen for the corrections.

4. Then repeat her idea until she says I’ve got it.

Only if I can remove the emotion, anger and frustration from my head and follow these four steps do I have any hope of listening. After that, it’s a matter of communicating, and that’s a whole different skill, and in many ways, even more difficult.

But let’s stay with listening. Stephen Covey, who sold over 25 million copies of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” wrote a whole chapter on this, and he says: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

I’m afraid I’m one of those. How about you?