On Listening

“Human relationships suffer when we don’t listen to each other.  That is obvious.  Counsellors and mediators know that, when there are problems between people, if those in conflict really start to listen and hear the other person’s point of view, breakthroughs are made.” —Aileen Milne from Understand Counselling

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On Contemporary Life & Culture

One of our most precious personal resources is our attention.  We only have so much of it, which means we can’t take in everyone and everything around us.  This can be a real irksome thing for wanna-be know-it-alls, much like gravity would be an irksome thing to someone who dreams of flying.  So we must choose what people we will listen to, what writings we will read, what videos we will watch, what things we will contemplate.  In other words, each one of us is personally responsible for deciding, every day, in every moment: who/what will I intentionally give my attention to?

We live in the Too Much Information Age.  Our time and our culture is filled with an incredible amount of things that clamour for our attention.  So, not surprisingly, we often spread our attention far too wide and thin.  This is an increasingly common problem.  It is a problem because it’s quite easy to end up perpetually tired and mentally frayed if one doesn’t exercise some considerable self-restraint these days.  What’s more, attending to too much and being constantly busy and exhausted has even become a desirable status symbol, at least to some.  It can be incredibly tempting, if not expected, to constantly multitask.  And it’s so convenient to fill every spare second with reading or hearing or watching or browsing or posting or playing (sometimes multiple) things.  Yet each of these activities, no matter how undemanding, takes up some of our attention.

Sometimes the multiple currents of people and things that we allow to flow through our minds might seem to be too powerful for us to resist, as if they’re far stronger than any will power we might be able to muster up to fight against them.  But we do have control over a great deal of what we allow to flow through our minds.  We do make many, many choices for what we will decide to give our focus to (though what once was a free choice may have turned into a habit, which may have turned into an instinct, which may have turned into an addiction).  But the point is, regardless of our choices, habits, instincts, and addictions, we are not totally helpless individuals who are mere victims of our excessive surroundings.  We have, to at least some degree, the power to choose what we will attend to.

Making this decision can be hard because we often feel like we would be missing out on something great if we’re not constantly on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.  That we would be missing out if we don’t listen to an endless stream of podcasts, and watch an inordinate number of TedTalks, and fact-check every single flash of curiosity that enters our mind against Wikipedia.  But what if we’re actually missing out on something even greater when we choose to indulge ourselves in every available distraction?

The bottom line is, we will always be missing out on something.  We will always miss out on something because we are limited people with limited attention spans, which is to say we are not omni-present and omni-scient creatures.  What we decide to miss out on is simply the negative side of our positive choice.  Though it can be a tough choice to make—perhaps, when taken to it’s most profound level, the toughest choice of our lives—it’s much better to strive to make it and be intentional about what we devote ourselves to.  Otherwise we will likely indulge ourselves with whatever or whoever is loudest or funniest or most demanding or most popular (which, however surprising, will not always or even often be the same as what will most fulfill us).

What we choose to devote our lives to is a decision that deserves plenty of thought and consideration; a decision that we will often make and re-make throughout our lives.  But this big decision is formed by all the little decisions we make in our daily lives.  What we will become in the future will develop out of what we will choose to be now; what we do with our lives will develop out of what we do with each present, ever-passing moment.  And all of this is inextricably tied up with what we devote our minds to, whether passively or actively.  So it is so important, so worthwhile, to be in the habit of asking ourselves, what will I intentionally give my attention to?  In the age of Too Much Information, one of the most uncommon and even rebellious decisions one can make to actually choose to ignore some popular people and things that clamour for one’s attention for the purpose of being devoted more fully to one’s deepest passions.