On Listening

I haven’t written anything on here for a while. There’s a reason for that.

When you’re a super connected millennial, who’s up to date on the minute-by-minute happenings of the world, who follows commentators and activists from all over the spectrum, when you have a platform – even a tiny one – there’s a temptation to take a stance, on pretty much everything. And this year seems to have been particularly cruel to us, full of surprises, heartache, and think-piece fodder – there’s no shortage of issues to take a stance on.

If nothing else, there are two things I’ve learned this year: first, my experience of this world is vastly affected by the way I look and the zipcode I come from. Or put another way, I’m white, and my life is easy. Secondly, even in a world where almost anyone can have a platform, where almost anyone can go viral, where almost anyone can become an influencer, there are millions of people who feel voiceless, and who long to be heard.

Some of these people look different from me, and different from each other. Many of them don’t look the way I do, or come from my sweet suburban bubble. There’s a lot that I could say about these people, whoever they are. But lately, I’ve been trying to listen.

Stories are powerful and valuable, and easier now than ever before to share and spread. Stories simultaneously empower the storyteller, and slowly reform the listener. They enable us to suspend what we think we know, and entertain a new, human perspective. There’s a beautiful weightlessness to hearing someone’s story, taking their word at face value, letting them own their experience, and respecting what it means to them. And when you’re a person like me – who has never struggled to be heard – there’s a necessary humility to just letting those stories be, without justification, or argument, or any response at all.  

It’s Advent now, which means this moment, more than ever, is a time to listen. The season of Advent – the four weeks which anticipate Christmas – is often associated with waiting, longing, even restlessness. We’re called to dwell in the world’s darkness, and patiently hope for redemption. At Christmas, there’s a lot of pressure to keep everything merry and bright, and to feel a perpetual state of joyful, sugar-induced, whimsy. Advent asks us to hold off on that, for now. When we want to be swept up in claymation and Bing Crosby, and forget about what a mess 2016’s been, Advent tells us to actually lean into that mess even more.

Waiting and listening are a lot alike. Both seem more passive than they really are. Both, at times, feel useless, or weak, or like a cop-out. But in the right time and place, they’re radical acts of humility. In a world of instant gratification, where all of us want to feel comfortable and fulfilled, all the time, living in anticipation of something else – something better – is a surprising discipline. Likewise, at a time when we all have distinct feelings and beliefs, when many of us are eager to point fingers and pigeon-hole, pausing to hear someone’s story, to try to understand who they are and where they’re coming from, is challenging, but vital.

Advent sometimes feels like empty space, like darkness hoping for light. But maybe that space is just room for us to grow, to quietly become the light that we seek.

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