Listen to Your Life

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

– Frederick Buechner from Now and Then

I like the first weeks of the New Year. The hectic Christmas season slips away in the rearview mirror. The nights are still very long, but every sunset is a few minutes later. Luxurious moments of free time appear. In those free moments we have a chance to think and remember, dream and plan, and collect the scattered pieces of our lives into pictures, or as Buechner says it, “listen to your life.”

All of us do a lot of listening in our lives, maybe too much. We listen to TV, radio and music as a sort of background track to keep the silence from getting too close. We listen to teachers, bosses, clients and customers often because we have to. The consequences of not listening to these folks can be bad. We try to listen to our friends and families for the most part because we care about them and don’t want them to feel ignored or unimportant, but not so much because we are vitally interested in what they have say. These modes of listening are passive; we are hardly engaged at all with the content. Neither memory nor imagination is engaged. It is water poured on the back of the proverbial duck.

Some communication experts have even suggested that we are collectively suffering from “listening burnout,” that we are so inundated with messages that we have tuned each other out. When we talk, we tend to “trade stories” rather than asking questions to find out more. We default to well-known clichés like the weather and Saturday’s game instead of saying anything of substance.

Listening to our lives or really listening to another person requires a different kind of listening. This kind of listening is active and engaged. It is creative. It’s a listening that really wants to hear, engage and understand. It uses the heart and imagination as well as the brain. It asks questions. It can set its own story aside for a time. It is intentional. When it is successful, the effect is powerful, even life-changing. At the barest minimum, it will improve any relationship.

If you want people to think that you’re a brilliant person, practice active listening. The same holds true for getting along with your spouse and figuring out your children. It works.

To what are you listening? There are a million voices fighting for your ear, and they’ll use every trick in the book to sell you something, win your vote, get you to act the way they want you to act and believe what they want you to believe. Not a single one of those voices is listening to your life; they only care that you listen to theirs.

“Listening to your life” is something of a higher order than simply using good communication skills. It’s the headwaters of great art. It’s that moment of insight that sets you on a new path. It is the source of that calm sense of assurance at the end of the day that it wasn’t all for naught. In listening to your life you “…touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

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