Last week I spoke of listening to ourselves and others. This is a listening to and from the sacred core or centre of ourselves, and attempting to tune into the core or centre of another person.
I recently heard a podcast on CBC Ideas, which suggested everyone is incredulous in some ways. Yet people who live in more isolated and homogenous communities, or who are exposed to only one worldview, are more readily threatened by exposure to anything different. This fear can lead to unreal projections on others and even violence. Behind this fear is a longing, in the face of the fragility of human life. This, the author suggests, is essentially a longing for meaning, a longing for a sense of worth and of purpose in our lives.
I have always expressed the underlying conviction that there is a sacred worth in each person and, really, in all that is. This worth is deeper than what we have and what we do. It belongs to who we are. It therefore has a gift character that should always be honoured by gratitude and respect.
In terms of listening, to tune in to ourselves and to one another is to sense the underlying worth and the longing for meaning in everyone we meet. Anxiety about the uncertainty of our worth and meaning may come out, not just in fear, but also in a defensive and provocative arrogance, in racism, sexism, and all the others isms. These may mask the experience of uncertainty, which is hard to bear, is frequently unacknowledged, and may have destructive consequences.
The challenge is to discern and/or to hold onto the conviction of the underlying worth of everyone we meet. Even when we need to oppose their actions as unjust or cruel, it is essential, as Thomas Merton insists, to recognize their humanity, however hidden or obscured it may be.
In the more usual situations, however, with those we meet in our everyday routines, it is a question of being at home with ourselves and seeing and acting from that home. This presence to oneself, without self-preoccupation, allows us to tune in more fully to others. It facilitates awareness of the person behind their words. It makes possible a discernment of who they are, beneath the uncertainties and insecurities of every life.
Alfred Tomatis, listening specialist, makes a fundamental distinction between hearing and listening: Hearing is simply the passive reception of sound. Listening is focusing on or attending to sound in order to make sense of it. It is the distinction between all the waves of sound that pass by our ears, and those we consciously tune into.
This is similar to David Steindl-Rast’s thought that to listen truly is to tune in to the meaning of life in each present moment. In a similar vein, Viktor Frankl says that while there is an underlying meaning to life, even in suffering. The basic task and responsibility is to respond to the challenge life presents to us in each living moment.
Theologians Gregory Baum and Karl Rahner both describe the human being as essentially a listener, a person challenged to be open to the meaning of life, to the truth of each situation. The path to become such a listener is that of silence and solitude, when we tune into our core self. It is also uncovered in the open and trusting conversation that occurs in friendship.
When music and story and other arts flow from the core of the artist, they can also reach to our own core. They can help us be in touch with our own core, and to name what is found there. One example is the ancient Greek story of Echo, who can only repeat what she hears until she finally fades away. I think that this story echoes the truth that to be fully and meaningfully alive, we must find our own inmost voice, not merely parrot the voice of others or of the conventional society or culture.
Two songs that express the need to listen beneath the surface are Starry, Starry Night and The Sound of Silence. In speaking of Vincent Van Gogh, the first song says: “Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me/ How you suffered for your sanity/ How you tried to set them free/ They would not listen, they’re not listening still/ Perhaps they never will.”
The words of the second song are similar: “And in the naked light, I saw/ Ten thousand people, maybe more/ People talking without speaking/ People hearing without listening.”
One of the challenges of our age is to learn to listen from the heart and to listen to the heart of ourselves and of one another. Then perhaps we may hear and speak from the voice, not of our hurt, fear, or hostility, but from our sacred worth.
Norman King, May 15, 2023