Most weekday mornings when I arrive at the littles home they are in the midst of their breakfast. The older two seated at the kitchen counter, the youngest near by in his high chair. Usually my initial task is to straighten up the kitchen while chatting with them about what the day has in store for us. That was the conversation this day, when the four year old, out of nowhere declared, “I am not listening to you, Nana.” Oh, brother did I ever have to bite my tongue on that one. How hilarious is that? Where did this come from? I had not directed nor corrected anyone. Our conversation was routine and predictable. As tough as it was, I did my best to ignore this declaration. After all, if someone is not listening, why continue? I wondered if he was perhaps telling me that this was going to be the tone for the day. If it were it would be a first. This kid can be challenging like any of us but we have never had a day of no listening. This kid is clever, imaginative, and entertaining. He is excellent company. I enjoy him far more than many adults.
Our day together was unremarkable. There was regular listening and interacting all day. What the “I’m not listening” was about I have no idea. What did result for me was hearing “I’m not listening” over and over and over in my head.
Listening is the most powerful thing any of us can do. Listening has the potential to be our most precious gift to another. True, deep, genuine listening is rare. There are people that seem to be natural listeners. My mother in law is one of those people. When I want to be truly heard, she is one I can always count on.
Listening is fundamental to all our relationships and interactions. Listening is inherent and simple but far from easy. And, it seems genuine presence to another is getting more rare and more challenging. Somehow the insidious technology some of us choose to surround ourselves with serves only to undermine our ability to be present which is the basis for all listening.
Sadly, I experienced the most unpleasant reminder of this recently. I don’t recall if my complete failure to listen was pre or post the littles declaration nor does it matter. What haunts me is that unlike the little who was clear that he was not listening, I thought I was listening. Maybe I pretended to be. I fooled myself that I was. But I was not. Not even a little bit. The worst part is I responded. I could have kept my mouth shut. Oh, no, not me, that is hardly my strong suit. I responded with words that I can not retract. Not angry or profane words. This was far not a heat of the moment situation. It was worse. My words were unfeeling and dismissive. I shared facts that although they are likely accurate they are unimportant. I entirely missed what was being said. Oh, I heard the words, but not the feelings behind them. Not the importance. Not the significance to the speaker who just happened to be my life partner.
Again and again I learn from the littles. If, and this is a big if, I have learned this lesson, the next time I sense that I do not have the capacity at a particular time to be genuinely present and listen, I will not pretend. I will have the honesty to say gently, I am not listening. Or, at least keep my mouth shut.