When I was a small child, my mother made certain I called my godmother to thank her for the gifts she gave me. Aunt Frances always gave me a piece of my silver pattern, her generous gifts a bit lost on me at the time. My stomach tightened up like a rubber band ball as I picked up the phone to call her each and every July, after the birthday gift arrived. I stalled and delayed, until Mother prompted me one final time to make that call.
Aunt Frances had a severe speech impediment. It manifested itself with long periods of silence between words. Rather than stuttering, she spoke slowly with long pauses. Elizabeth would be followed by what seemed like a five minute period of dead air on our marigold kitchen wall-phone with the six foot cord. (It was the ‘60s and it was the South.) After Elizabeth, she would say, you’re. And then eventually, welcome, honey, would make its way out.
My stomach tight and tense, we would always get through my thank you’s. This was an important childhood lesson. Being forced to listen. In love. With patience. My tendency is always to talk rather than listen. My nature is to dive in and speak, add something, fill the silence, contribute something to the conversation. Add my story to yours. (As if your story isn’t worthy to stand alone on its own.) And if we are having a conversation, there is a strong likelihood that I will interrupt you.
French philosopher Simone Weil wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” When I give you my time and my attention, when I plant myself in the moment and intentionally place myself into the middle of your words, I am displaying hospitality. And I am expressing and giving love. I am your guest. Your words are my host.
My learning curve is steep, but I am finally learning that love listens. It listens long and hard and well. Love hushes its own words to embrace the words of others. It mutes the noise of self in an act of self-less listening. Paul Tillich wrote: “The first duty of love is to listen.” If this is true, or worthy of consideration, then we would do well to listen more, listen longer and linger over the words of each other.
We gathered as a family recently. Cousins upon cousins. People piled high in grief. My finger to my mouth, I pressed my lips, coaching them to be silent. There were stories to net. Words to linger among. Joy and sadness intermingled; emotions cried out to be honored in the listening. I wanted to speak, but each time I waited, I learned some hidden secret, story or heart-cry of another.
Love walks beside, not in front of. Love holds space in the quiet, listening to the fountain of fear and pain, delight and despair, hope and exuberance of others. I believe we are at risk of becoming tone deaf to others. Do I feel so entitled to speak and be heard, to voice my opinion, that I do it at any cost, by any means? Am I at risk of stepping on my neighbor’s toes by stepping on my neighbor’s words?
If love is patient and kind, is it only patient and kind when it is convenient? When it is not emotion charged. When the stakes are not high and when the topic does not involve faith, culture or politics. If you join me around my table, I am my happiest when the conversation is spirited, boisterous and a little bit loud. I love to hear passion and lots of voices; the voices of my family and friends. I eat up your stories as I dine at my own table.
But if and when I have the discipline to be still, to hush my heart and bite my tongue, I honor you by really listening to you. By hearing you. You teach me in your telling. You show me, guide me, school me, by way of your story. I become the student, the “sitter at your feet.” And often, I am loving you by listening to you. Giving you a chance to pour out what has been pressed down and stopped up. What has yearned for a long long while to find the light of day. To find an audience. To find a friendly landing pad.
Intimacy, friendship and relationships are deepened through the act of actively listening. Love is in the middle, love is the tether, love is the bond.
Perhaps the best way for me to listen more keenly is to prompt myself with a finger to my lips. Hush, Elizabeth. Hush. Others are speaking now. Maybe inviting others to go first, to tell their stories, to tell the hard truth, maybe this is love. Around the table, around the corner, around the world, on social media and in our homes. Loves takes a seat and listens.
My godmother died recently. I saw her at a funeral a little over a year ago, just months before she died. I believe her stutter or stammer, her impediment had mostly healed over the years. She was in a wheelchair, yet so full of life and love and graciousness. Well-loved and well-liked, it is likely that she taught many of us to slow down in love, to slow down to listen.
I feel the nervousness of my little girl self relaxing now as I remember those difficult phone calls. I remind myself now, as then, it is well to listen well. Hush, someone is speaking. Hush, someone is hungry for love. Perhaps we can be the people of the lender of the ear. The listener to the broken-hearted.
Our momentary silence, their salve. Our actions speaking much louder than our words.