A few days ago, I sat in a crowded bar with my head angled in the direction of a friend who was quietly telling me a story about people and wind, about fish and water, canoe and paddle. Some of her words were lost to the sounds from pool tables behind her, music from above, Friday night voices from all directions. She and I had met through our work and we had struck up a quick friendship. She was talking about our work, about dialogue, taking long pauses between thoughts. I didn’t want to miss anything. I tilted my ear toward her.
Listening is a funny activity. It’s quiet, but it depends on noise. It’s active, but it doesn’t exactly look like you’re doing anything. You can feel it more than you can see it, though it’s not usually clear how you come to feel it, how you know you’re being listened to or even how you’re listening.
You listen with your ears, but that’s only part of it. You listen with the small tells of your eyes, the set of your mouth, the angle of your head, the actions and rest of your hands. You listen with where your torso is facing and what your legs are doing or not doing.
You can’t close your ears, but you can certainly close or open your attention to what goes into them.
Maybe that’s it: listening is paying attention. What I’m doing when I’m listening well is paying attention to someone or something that’s at least a little bit outside of me, that is in some way not precisely where I am.
It’s not that we can’t listen to ourselves; people say, for good reason, that we need to listen to ourselves more. But that only makes the point: when we’re encouraged to listen to ourselves, we’re being told to pay deeper, better attention than we have been—to open up to parts of ourselves that we have not yet been ready to hear. These parts have been off limits, have been so far inside that they might as well be outside. We need to quiet ourselves, to stop the usual chatter, in order to really hear ourselves.
Listening is a way of connecting, a movement toward, a waiting that is ready to receive.
With some people who are close to me, I listen easily and well. With others, I’ve become practiced at not listening, at inattention.
And then there are all the people who I’m not close to. There are the faraway people, but also the proximate public, the people I share imaginative and even physical space with—neighbors, workers, people on the bus. I’m really good at not listening in public.
But there are moments when I wonder about all the people I live among and don’t hear—people I disagree with, people I ignore, people I simply don’t pay attention to. What would make it easier for me to listen to them? What would make it more likely that we would listen to each other?
My friend in the bar was talking about air—the air of a person, the wind of a person. In that bar, I couldn’t help but breathe the air of others. In my life, I can’t help but breathe the air of others. We share each other’s air. Mostly we don’t notice this. But there are currents that circulate around all of us, again and again. What would it take to pay more attention to these currents and to each other? What would it take to listen to ourselves, to listen to our whole selves?
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