“I just don’t think you were listening. I was looking for empathy and you seemed to have your own agenda.” Truer, more sobering words were never spoken to me. Though sad and hurt, my patient was not angry or mean. He was simply honest.
It’s never fun to be confronted with your own deafness. Especially as a psychiatrist, whose work is allegedly grounded in listening. But in that moment I was reminded—again—of my frailty, and the deep reality that listening to others begins with the hard work of listening to myself and to God, and of what happens when I don’t. Listening to myself requires, first, the challenging effort of paying attention to what I am paying attention to—my sensations, feelings, images, and thoughts, even as they shift, blend, or collide at various paces throughout the day. These activities of the mind are the ingredients out of which emerge memory, emotion, and perceptions that shape moment-to-moment choices, many of which are—albeit willful—non-conscious in nature. When I ignore these features of my mind, I give my less mature brain more control of my behavior. The part that tends to react to events of the day more impulsively and with a greater interest in its own comfort than that of those around it—as my patient helpfully revealed. Thus, even when ostensibly listening to someone else, I can end up responding not to what they are really feeling and saying, but more so to what I am feeling, missing them altogether.
When I intentionally attune to the cacophony of voices vying for my attention, I become more consciously observant—without judgment—of their presence. I am then more able to gently (and again, without judgment) allow those sensations to pass out of awareness, creating space for God’s voice to be heard more clearly. The voice that reminds me that I am his child in whom he is pleased—as is the one to whom I am listening. The voice that bids me to wait quietly and confidently for his Spirit to work, taking in not only what my patient, friend, wife, or child is saying, but sensing what they are sensing; feeling what they are feeling; even imagining what they are imagining. And then bids me to respond from a place of restraint rather than impulsivity. A place of invitation rather than demand. A place of containment and safety rather than chaos and danger. In so doing, God enlarges space for creativity both in me and in the one to whom I listen, creativity that eventually leads to justice, mercy, and peace.
Unlike hearing, which requires no conscious learning or practice to become proficient, listening takes hard work. Hearing is effortless, requiring only the passive response of an intact auditory nerve to the stimulus of molecular movement. Not so, listening. But practices such as centering prayer, meditation on Scripture and beauty, and being part of a community of good listeners will lead not only to better listening. It will lead to an integrated life. A peaceful life. A beautiful life. Can you hear it? Are you listening?
Dr. Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist and author of Anatomy of the Soul.