When someone is talking about troubles in a marriage you will often hear a comment like "the number-one issue in a troubled marriage is money." Even in today’s economy I would disagree. I would say that the number one issue in troubled marriages (and a lot of other relationships) is the feeling of not being heard. Whether it’s in the average marriage or in the people rioting in Egypt or in the angry voters in the United States, it very often comes down to a deep feeling of not being heard. This includes a wider sense of not being worth listening to, of being marginal and unimportant, of having nothing valuable to contribute and therefore no reason to be listened to. Not only what you say doesn’t matter, but who you are doesn’t matter. You can scream; you can carry a sign; you can write letters, but in the end your voice, your issues, your concerns are irrelevant, of no concern. Which is to say that you are nothing; you are irrelevant as well as the words that come out of your mouth. In a marriage or other relationship you often hear "s/he just doesn’t listen to me." When we hear those words many of us are aware that the real issue is I’m not being valued. What I’m saying and who I am lack value. And that hurts. How can you have a deep and lasting relationship with someone whom you feel doesn’t value your opinions, and more importantly, you? That’s what pulls apart a relationship far more than any disagreement or differing opinion.
So if we really cared enough to hear another person and to demonstrate what it means to value them what would that look like? It would look like something I call "A Ministry of Listening." Or maybe it should be called a ministry of valuing others. For me this starts with one of the foundational principles of my Quaker roots. And I’m sure it’s found in many religious traditions as well. That principle is that there is that of God in everyone. My father used to urge me to search for that of God in everyone I encountered (no matter how hidden it seemed to be) and then try and coax it out.
The way I see that in a ministry of listening is listening for and recognizing the value of another in what they say or do. That usually starts with listening to their words, truly listening. So often when we are not talking we are using this gap not to listen to the other but as a time of preparation for what we are going to say next. Our talking is debating or trying to win a point without having listened to where the other is coming from. And when you listen, don’t just listen to their words. Listen to what is behind those words, for insights, for newness, for wider and deeper meanings. And be listening to who is speaking those words. What is their greatness? (This takes time to find.) What are their needs or where are they hurting right now? The ministry of listening process is not just hearing and it’s not just hearing correctly. It is letting the other know that you have heard them and that you consider them valuable enough to want to hear what they are saying, even if you do not agree with their point of view.
I like to wonder what our world would be like if we yelled less and listened respectfully to those we disagree with and let them know that we were listening and that we thought that they brought something of value to this world. You and I might not have the opportunity to try this in Egypt but we could try it in our relationships at home, at work and in our everyday life. For some of us this is the time of Advent or the time of anticipating new beginnings and new possibilities.
Bain Davis is a member of the Bennington Friends Meeting (Quakers).