Listening with Wide Open Hearts

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We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.             -Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

Observing the political climate, both in the U.S. and around the world, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and anger and the absence of compassion. I’ve seen these at play, usually aggressive play, in both far-off places and close to home.

In the Bible we read the oft-repeated message: “Be not afraid.” Do we trust these words? Do we heed them?

The message we receive from the media, which many of us see and hear more often than the Bible is “Be afraid. Be afraid! Be very afraid!” These words cater to our basest instincts. When should we trust them?

Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.      – George W. Bush

When we fear – the “other,” terror, pain, loss, death – we judge unequally and act defensively, assuming the worst of people and situations; our fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in. Instead of seeing other beloved children of God, we see threats and we act accordingly.

I won’t deny that many scary things are happening around us; our world is broken and continues to break into pieces.

But we have a choice about how to approach broken places and broken people.

We can choose fear.

Or we can choose love.

We can choose to close ourselves off or open ourselves wider.

Ever since I heard about it, I’ve been fascinated by the Urban Confessional, a loosely connected group of people from thirteen countries whose sole purpose is to listen to other people, strangers on the street. Participants in the project go to public places and stand with signs that say “Free Listening.” When someone approaches a listener, the listener puts the sign down, focuses attention on the person who wants to be heard, and listens to whatever he or she might offer. The listener may ask questions, but gives no advice or critique. Only the gift of listening. “Only” the gift of open-hearted time.

I want to join the Urban Confessional. I plan to. I need to practice listening… a lot. I preach the importance of listening much better than I practice the skill.

A few people in my life know how to push my buttons. Though most of the time I am able to heed my better senses, sometimes I allow myself to get caught up in heated exchanges, too often in the online sphere (mistake #1). When I do it, I feel my body tense, my heartrate speed up, and my sense of self-righteousness swell. These are not moments I’m proud of. My goal in “listening” then is only to form a better argument: why I’m right and how they’re wrong.

I was telling this story to someone who responded, “If you have to be right, you’ve already lost.”

I’ve lost many times. I’m sure I’ll lose many more. But I’m trying.

“I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). That’s what we must pray for… a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.    – President Barack Obama

Recently a local visionary led a workshop in which he spoke about the year he spent listening to talk radio that didn’t align with his belief system. In doing so, he hoped to diminish the power of ideas and words that triggered his ire. He wanted to learn to listen in a way that always honored the common kinship of humanity and always recognized the inherent dignity of the other person, even when they saw the world through very different lenses.  He wanted to  honor relationship over ideology.

Maybe listening to strangers will help me listen better to people I know and help me to honor relationship over ideology. Maybe listening to strangers will slowly pry open my heart, so there is space for the fears and hopes and challenges of anyone I may encounter.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” [Abraham] said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”  Genesis 18:23-26, 31-33

We are all affected when one person treats others with compassion. The goodness, while perhaps seemingly insignificant, ripples and magnifies, bonding pieces once broken apart. Through listening, wide-open-hearted listening, we walk through fear and anger, towards compassion. Through listening we create an abundance of mercy. This abundance can sustain the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Through deep listening, love and understanding can make us forgiving and caring, just and fair. As we grow in the presence of mercy, we free ourselves as much as we empower others.

By Cory Lockhart. Article originally written on August 4, 2016 for use by JustFaith Ministries (www.justfaith.org). Copyright 2019-2020 JustFaith Ministries. Do not copy, share, or forward without permission.

Pretty, Part 2

I was walking down the street, a few blocks from reaching my home. After sitting at my computer most of the morning, I knew getting outside, even on a hotter-than-I like day, to move my body in the steady rhythm of a walk, would do me good.

I saw him approaching, stiffly, as if walking weren’t so easy these days, an older white man, cropped white hair, blue shorts pulled just under his exposed bellybutton, white T-shirt riding just above it, something in his arm, maybe a wrinkled-up sheet- I didn’t look at long enough to know for sure. I had planned to greet him with a friendly, “Hi, how are you?” but he spoke first.

With a smile on his face, “You better get you a really big dog. When they get pretty like you, you need a big dog to defend yourself.”

“I don’t need a dog. I can defend myself,” I said casually, not stopping, past him by this point.

“What’d you do? What’d you learn?” He had stopped and was turned toward me, still smiling.

I turned his way, still moving, “I know how to talk to people.” I waved and kept walking, a tornado whirling in my head.

The conversation lasted no more than 15 seconds.

 I know how to talk to people? Does that protect me?

Short answer: Yes. I've been in situations where my use of clear, calm words has diffused what could have become a violent situation, either for myself or others. When I have been in Palestine, I have more than once used words, or even simple body language, to protect myself or others from people, most often Israeli soldiers, with weapons held in hands.

Long answer:  Unlike the last recent encounter where my “prettiness” was a wasted commodity for someone else’s pleasure, today it was a detriment to my safety.

In both cases, these statements were offered as compliments, or at least I assume so from the smiles on their faces. In neither case was my body assumed to be my own. Instead it was something that someone else (presumably a man) should “have,” and my own dominion over it rendered it either worthless or subject to violence.  

Let’s break it down a little more:

A man I’ve never seen before thinks that the best way to engage with me is by telling me that the way I look is so much of a danger that someone (I assume, a man) might hurt me to possess it.

Saying that I need a dog to protect myself IS NOT A COMPLIMENT. It is not a compliment to me and it doesn’t exactly paint a glowing image of men. It is, rather, a threat. “You should be afraid, even in the middle of the day, of men,” (smile on the face) “who will naturally want to forcibly take you because of the way you look.”  

Women are attacked and abused and raped at alarming rates regardless of their looks. Men who are attacking, abusing, and raping women may use “pretty” or “not pretty enough” or “you in some way don’t meet my standards of pretty” or “someone else might be attracted to your pretty” or “you’re using your pretty to attract someone else” as an excuse for their misplaced anger, an outlet for their rage. But let’s be clear: a woman’s looks, whether “pretty” or “ugly” or something else, are not the problem. A woman can present herself however the hell she wants. No man (or other woman, for that matter) gets to decide that. No one gets to attack her for her decisions.

I remember most vividly a time many years ago in which I feared for my own safety. I was dating the man who threatened me. He happened to do so when I was taking care of a large dog. The dog was no deterrent. I don’t know if it was my words or the fact that I was able to move us somewhere where we were visible to others that protected me from harm. But I got away, in the moment and for good.

Violence, or the threat of it, is the problem.

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The problem is men who thinks it’s OK to offer unsolicited “advice” to women. The problem is men who think they have the right to any woman’s body, regardless of her feelings on the matter. The problem is men who think they have the right to attack her, verbally or otherwise, if she dares to refuse his advances, however polite or grotesque they may be. The problem is blaming and shaming women for violence done to them (“What was she wearing when she got raped?” as if the rape happened without someone actively doing it to her). The problem is not holding men accountable for their actions. The problem is young men like Brock Turner who brutally rape a woman and, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, blames them on “alcohol and sexual promiscuity.” Hint: rape ≠ sexual promiscuity. Hint: Alcohol is no excuse for rape. The problem is men like Turner’s father who think that punishment for “20 minutes of action” should be lenient or nonexistent. I wonder if he’d feel the same way if someone spent a similar “20 minutes of action” with his wife or daughter. I fervently hope he, they, never have to find out.

I had a student once who wrote a heartbreaking personal story of being held back, held back, at a party as another guy raped his friend. The problem is that that happens.

The problem is that from a very young age, girls receive messages that their primary asset is the way they look. And very rarely does the way they look conform with the images they see, thus setting them up for constant striving towards the impossible. The problem is that from a very young age, girls learn to be passive, to question their instincts rather than trust them, to keep their emotions in check. The problem is that from a very young age, boys learn that certain expressions of emotion, the “soft” ones, are not acceptable. The problem is that from a very young age, boys receive message that aggression and toughness are what define their masculinity. 

The problem is that not enough men who agree with everything I’m saying hold other men accountable when they do or say things that promote rape culture and misogyny. The problem is anyone, man or woman, who teaches girls and women that it is up to them to keep from getting raped or attacked or abused or killed, but doesn’t teach boys and men not to rape or attack or abuse or kill women.

The problem is that we don’t emphasize enough the power and the necessity of mutually respectful relationships. We must teach boys and girls, men and women, most probably ourselves included, how to be in relationships that honor the fullness of expression that each of us has to offer. We need not look too far in our world to see this.     

I don’t plan to get a big dog.

I know how to talk to people, or at least I’m trying. I’m learning. I want to talk to people. I want to reach out to their hearts, to your heart, with mine.

I do not put my trust in fear. I put my trust in the belief that most of the time most people I meet will treat me like a person if I treat them like a person, even if the encounter starts with something other than respect. I know it is so hard to offer respect in the face of animosity. So I will practice. Practice. PRACTICE. I know that if that doesn’t work, walking away is usually an option. Or walking towards another good soul.

And so I will keep walking, forward when possible, backward when necessary, head held high.