She looked at me. I looked at her. Silence filled the room as my brain nervously fluttered over the last words that she had spoken. Subject? Check. Verb? Check. Question particle? Check. Then, the lightbulb clicked on at last. Relieved that I finally understood what she had said, I smiled. Yet my relief quickly faded as I looked into her waiting expression and realized I had forgotten something dreadfully important: I had to respond!
There I was, sitting in my Chinese final oral examination in Xiamen, China. Absorbed in the process of listening, I had entirely forgotten that the point was not only to understand the question, but also to answer it. Understanding the Chinese language takes so much time and mental energy for me that it is almost laughable to imagine answering within a socially-acceptable amount of time. Listening is hard work!
Many days have passed since that sunny November day spent with green tea, white rice and crowded buses, and many things have changed. Soon after my return to the United States, I often pointed to the piles of snow adorning the sidewalks and the sprawling buildings, but now that my experiences in China have percolated through my mind for a few months, different things emerge as significant. One of the most important lessons from my study abroad experience came to my attention only after attending a recent lecture at Eastern.
As voices flew and comments raged during the Q&A, my brain frantically tried to follow the ping pong match of thought, logic and explanation. Desperate to keep up with the passionate exchanges, I simply sat in silence and tried to understand. Surrounded by the bustle of typical American conversation and fighting my instincts to add my voice before I’d considered what had been said, I yearned for the times when my energy was solely focused on truly listening to understand. The absorption in listening that I had experienced during my Chinese exam felt concretely out of reach. Yet in that contrast, one thing has become clear.
Here in America, as young people and as Christians, it has been my experience that we are always speaking but rarely listening. At the lunch tables, in the library, at lectures, we talk over each other, and the rare stints of silence are only preparations for our next conversational turn. And I worry that in the conversations that matter most, we listen the least.
As I looked around during that same lecture, I noticed how the intensity of how we listen simply does not match the fervor with which we speak. If we truly care so deeply about understanding truth together, why does our listening look like not-so-sly cell phone using, eye-rolling, online shopping and professors passing notes?
I stand guilty as charged. My thoughts too are rarely focused on trying to understand fairly what another is saying. For me, it’s seldom that I truly attempt to grasp what that experience was like as they lived it. Most of the time, I am busy thinking about where to go, or what to say, or what I have to do next. Listening for the sake of understanding is as foreign to me as Chinese was when I stepped foot on that first plane.
Imagine if we could all stop talking so much and listen a little more. Because when we listen only to retort, we forge cultures of deep alienation and mass miscommunication. We are no longer looking for the goodness or truth someone else can offer us; rather, we are looking for the weakness we can attack. And that is no way to be a unified community.
And maybe that is the hardest charge of all: in the conversations that we care the most about, we need to be impassioned and genuine, but we also must listen even to those with whom we disagree. Listen for the sake of learning, for the sake of recognizing truth in the other, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of growing together. Listen in unusual silence as we try to understand. For when we speak we share what we already know, but when we listen we can learn what we never knew before. And when we take the time to listen, perhaps then we’ll be ready to respond.