I’ve always been intensely curious about people. What makes them tick, why do they think the way they do, why do they make the choices they make, why do they behave the way they do? Being a good observer of life and human nature is essential to being a good writer, and I know this.

So, why do I have such a hard time shutting up?

I remember a point in college when I realized that I really needed to work on my listening skills — not in the conventional way, or for conventional reasons, perhaps, but the need was there all the same. I was sitting in Critical Approaches to Literature (a course taught by one of the most intelligent women I know). Many of the selected readings for this class had me limping mentally by the end of them — and there was one in particular (by Foucault) that I remember almost succeeded in conquering me, but before I succumbed to frustrated tears, I muscled through. And decided that I wasn’t sure whether I liked Foucault at all — talk about spending ten-dollar words like they’re pennies!

I showed up to class each day, entirely uncertain about my understanding of the readings, but willing to throw my hat in the ring, and offer my best answers. I am unafraid of being wrong — when you’re brave enough to raise your hand and offer your honest opinion, you’ll find out quickly enough whether you’ve got it or not. And if you’re wrong, then you’re wrong, and someone tells you what’s right. I’ve always figured that was pretty much the fastest route to figuring out whether I was on track or way off the beaten path.

This professor, after three classes, refused to call on me. She told me why — because she knew I knew what I was talking about, that I was doing the readings, and that she really needed the others to talk. It was a sign of her courage as an instructor that she was willing to stand at the front of the room and wait them out — it starts to feel really hot up there if no one’s raising their hand — and I’ve been the fallback answer girl for almost every single teacher I’ve ever had, so this was new.

I knew what she was driving at, and why she was doing it — I didn’t feel cheated, because she’d explained her reasoning to me. I don’t know if she realizes that I learned something very important that semester, something that wasn’t on the syllabus: How to shut up.

I’ll tell ya, it wasn’t easy, sitting there class after class, waiting painfully for others to reluctantly raise their hands with all the enthusiasm of someone volunteering for Chinese water torture. Especially when I was sitting there on my hands to keep them from springing, unbidden, into the air.

So, I learned some things. That what I have to say about something is what I already know. That sure, I can volunteer what’s in my heart or on my mind to push others into volunteering what they think or feel, but I also take a chance of intimidating them out of saying something that way. I learned to listen. To value what other people think, in a way that I hadn’t really done before. (I thought I had, but that was a great big fib).

When I started teaching, I had to stretch this newfound ability further. Not everyone pounces to answer a question, or tromps assuredly forward to volunteer their opinion. You have to wait (hard, hard, hard for me). And wait. And give them time to think about what they think. And then hope that they will honor themselves enough, and feel safe enough to volunteer it.

I am not saying I’ve mastered the fine and subtle art of being a good listener, but I’m working on it every day. I catch myself babbling when I’m with friends, and I mentally wrangle myself into a modicum of silence. Because I really do want to hear what they have to say, what they feel, what they think. And when I’m talking, I’m not listening. And I’ve walked away from enough get togethers with people I love thinking, “Crap. I’ve gone and done it again. I wanted to know what she thought about _________ and I didn’t shut up long enough to find out.” You can’t get those moments back, and opportunities don’t always come around a second time, and I don’t like walking away feeling as though I didn’t offer opportunities to share with me. Because, truly, I really do want to know.

I love the way that the Universe (God) works. There are no mistakes, no coincidences — only opportunities to choose. A few weeks ago, Annette (a lovely woman whose joyful spirit is a clever cover for a philosophical mind and mystical soul) said something in one of the Reiki Shares that got me thinking, and stuck with me. That prayer is like talking to God, and meditation is like listening.

I’ve been chewing on that thought ever since. I’ve been asking a lot of questions, saying a lot of prayers. But all of that’s talking, not listening. And I’m realizing that learning how to meditate, how to open up space to receive the answers to those questions is really just another round of me sitting on my metaphorical hands and remembering to be more interested in what God has to say than in what I have to say.

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