Talking with friends over supper, one of us suddenly embarked on the topic of relationships—specifically male/female bonds. Fresh from a women’s conference, she was very fond of the Martian/Venusian divide between men and women. The stereotypes took center stage as a guide to navigating the colorful, mysterious waters of human behavior. I certainly don’t blame her. Everyone wants answers today. And everyone wants more love, to give it and to receive it.
As I listened—which has become one of my very favorite things to do, because I am now pretty good at it, despite—or perhaps because of—an annoying hearing loss, I thought to myself, “Why all this fascination with stereotypes? Why categorize anyone? Why not just listen, really listen, until you hear someone’s soul?” And as someone recently said, listen to understand, not just to reply. You’ll learn much if you simply keep silent.
I love the idea of listening innocently. Ever catch your mind wandering, thinking how nice the wallpaper looks, while your best buddy’s trying earnestly to make a point you badly need to hear? Yeah, you know what I’m sayin’. Oops. Hit that return key. Bring that mind back to the here and now. Sometimes you have to work at it. It’s astonishing how far away you can get in an instant without moving an inch. Become aware of that.
Here is one line I will never forget: “The greatest gift you can give anyone is your attention.” One of my favorite teachers gave it to me in 1999, just before the next decade began. She kicked off my transition from being a mere sprayer of words to becoming a bona fide listener. I have learned more since then than in all the years which came before.
If you really listen, listen to understand, you won’t have to rely on stereotypes or other fixed ideas to understand your friends or lovers or politicians or salespeople as they deliver their lines. We are all very complex creatures; even more so when we try to hide our subtleties. And that complexity is our inimitable charm. No one else possesses our charm. And we are in no way like stuff in boxes on a store shelf meant to whiten whites or freshen breath or clean the shower. We cannot be rated. We cannot be reduced to a label.
We are here to climb a ladder set before us by God, by nature, or by Satan—whoever you think runs the machinery—right here on this Earth.
It’s all right to read a book or two, but far better to do your own thinking, especially if you’re not so skilled at choosing books. I have purchased far too many that I wind up giving away without so much as turning a single page. The mind is a very delicate thing, a blob of rather impressionable grey tissue. All kinds of stuff seeps into it, and if you’re not really aware and very diligent, some of that stuff can be mighty hard to eradicate.
You don’t want to be a victim of narrow thinking. And you certainly don’t want to be a victim of your own narrow thinking, because it will shut you down like nobody’s business and you’ll get on the wrong train and go barreling full speed down the wrong line that ends up where all the bad restaurants are. It’s no fun, believe me, because those places never have clean bathrooms and the wait staff doesn’t care how you like your eggs cooked.
If you listen, really listen to someone you deeply care about, you’ll never need to remember any lines from a book you read that purports to teach you how to react. There’s Mars and Venus in all of us. Hear both. Honor both, innocently, in everyone, and you’ll automatically honor them in yourself. That’s our mission, whether we accept it or not. It’s like any other truth: it matters not whether you believe it. Truth doesn’t care. It simply is.
And remember this, too: the whole damned enterprise is just a big improv. And an improv, according to those who know, is just a bunch of people putting the plane together after they’re already in the sky.
You’re already flying. To hell with the seatbelt. Just fly.