Yesterday one of our congregation’s deacons spoke about the problem of being a good listener, and it was phrased in such a way that the advice was particularly practical and that the speaker admitted, in the presence of his attentive family, his own struggles with listening. I think in many ways we all struggle with listening, at least partly because we all think we know what others are going to say if we have known them for a long time, even when we don’t know what they, in fact, are going to say, because something else is on their mind. When we take the usual patterns of thought or behavior of someone, or even a part of that, and assume that is all there is about someone, we do great harm both to them and to our relationship with them, because we deny them the fullness and richness and complexity about themselves and because that illusion of knowledge dampens our willingness to pay attention to them, to listen to them, and to learn more about them because we think we know it all already.
In the late 1980’s, singer Peter Cetera released a moderately popular album called “One More Story.” The big hit single off of that album was the song “One Good Woman,” but it appeared that as the song hit #4 in the charts and the album only hit #58 and barely went gold, that people listened to the song, appreciated it, and thought that they had heard everything there was to Cetera’s music. “Oh, here’s another love ballad praising women. I’ve heard this before,” the thought went, and then they shut it out of mind and did not bother to investigate the rest of the story. As it happens, and and is often the case, there was a lot more to the story, and the fact that others were unwilling to deeply ponder it or reflect upon it or even recognize it in the first place, suggests that Cetera’s solo career suffered from his reputation as a balladeer, in that people assumed he made soft rock and was a gentle sort of guy and didn’t realize the depth or complexity of Cetera’s approach or even the subject matter of his songs. “One More Story,” for example, covers material ranging from odes to the love of a father and husband to dark reflections on domestic troubles, to reflections on a long-dead Muslim young woman facing life or death based on the qualities of her stories, namely “Scheherazade.”
It is the song “You Never Listen To Me,” which is of interest here. This song is full of ominous instrumentation, a haunting minor key, and even more ominous lyrics dealing with the growing frustration and despair faced by a man over someone who refuses to listen to him. Without giving away the song completely, and it is a dark song from an artist assumed far too often to be far too light , the song itself wrestles with the consequences of someone being disregarded, with seemingly no one paying attention, especially in his own home, a case of haunting domestic tragedy that is surely not an uncommon problem. It would have been worthwhile for others to pay attention to this song, not only to reflect on the fact that Peter Cetera’s career is largely tied up with the problem of being pigeonholed as a particular type of adult-contemporary artist, perhaps a little “harder” than Air Supply but in the same general vein of producing sappy and romantic prom tunes and romantic ballads, without people understanding that this was a man who had his jaw wired shut because of a fight at a baseball game–he was certainly someone acquainted with violence, acquainted with relationship problems, acquainted with trouble, and surely he had something worth saying about such matters.
In many ways, listening is one of the basic ways in which we show appreciation for someone. It may be tedious in our eyes to pay attention as someone goes down the same familiar path of expressing what is on their mind, when we have heard the same things so many times before and could faithfully recite them in our sleep, but there is a lot to gain by spending a bit of time to let someone express themselves. For one, we show respect to them, and our regard for them, and build up and maintain our good standing with them, and for another we may often be surprised that others are not exactly repeating what we have heard so many times before, but there is a twist on it, something that we either did not recognize previously, or that has resulted from the same mind processing different things the same way, or pondering a different aspect of a familiar problem, or a different case with slightly different (or sometimes even massively different) implications. Is it so hard to restrain ourselves from interruption or criticism and maintain our interest in others so that we may treat them with the respect they deserve and also that we may ourselves benefit from an appreciation of their depth as people?
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