Listen Up!

(Cover image via Amazon)
A new way forward.

‘Often it is better simply to slow down,” says Pope Francis, “to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.”

That’s a quote Art and Larraine Bennett make use of in their new, somewhat countercultural, book — a bit of an intervention, frankly — called “Tuned In: The Power of Pressing Pause and Listening.”

Their contention:

Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was one small thing you could do each day that could transform all your relationships and make them 100 percent better? What if there was one simple thing that, if everyone did it, would result in world peace?

There is. It’s called listening.

Art had run mental-health clinics and now runs Catholic Charities in Arlington, Va. Laraine works in communications. And the two of them have co-authored multiple books on the temperaments and human relationships. They talk about the power of being tuned in.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Do we need to learn to listen again — both as individuals and as a culture?

Art Bennett: I think we need to see listening as a critical aspect of communication and living. There are techniques that can be learned that can help us listen better; for example, being attentive, being empathic, pausing before responding. But there is a deeper level, too, that requires interior silence, developing one’s interior life. As Cardinal Robert Sarah says, we have to develop “interior listening” as well — a posture of respect and reverence toward the other, a prayerful art leading to loving encounters. Cardinal Sarah says, “The silence of listening is a form of attention, a gift of self to the other.”

Lopez: Can one listen on social media?

Laraine Bennett: Just recently comedienne Sarah Silverman showed that it is possible. She received a nasty one-word insult on her Twitter feed and she responded by reading the man’s profile and listening to the hurt that was hidden in the tweet. She took the time to respond lovingly, to listen to the man, and even to help him.

Art Bennett: Another example is Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute who received a hateful e-mail about a book he had written; the emailer called him a “moron” and an idiot and detailed every error the man found in the book. Instead of being upset by this, Brooks responded by telling the man that he had spent two years writing the book and said he was so grateful that this fellow had taken the time to read every single word, even though he had ultimately disagreed with him. In response, the man invited Brooks to visit him at his home so they could have further discussions.

Lopez: You write: “In a tragic irony, in 2014, a college track star posted happy photos on social media minutes before committing suicide.” How does this happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? One suicide is one too many, and there seems to be so much of it, despite our hyper connectedness.

Art Bennett: The online relationships many young people enjoy are often superficial and isolating, portraying false or one-dimensional personae. The true and deeply satisfying connections will arise out of a vertical move of interacting with a loving God; and the horizontal move of heart to heart encounters, difficult and loving conversations — not just the superficial transactions we often limit ourselves to in our daily lives. Loving and feeling loved and appreciated by being with a true interactive church, community, family, and friends who love and care for you in a deep, accepting way, can reduce isolation, indifference, rejection, self-loathing, and suicide.

Lopez: What does it mean to “radically listen”?

Art Bennett: We are thinking about the Latin root of the word “radix,” the root. To go deeper in our engagements to take them beyond transactions, and to make them true encounters. We’re trying to dig for the interior silence that Cardinal Sarah talks about, where we not only listen to the words, arguments, or criticisms but are aware that this person has an eternal soul made in the image and likeness of God and is worthy of my love even if I don’t like them or agree with him. And sometimes, an especially harsh criticism might be something God wants to tell me through this medium! Listening isn’t for doormats. But preceding rebuttals or correction is respectful awareness of the other’s dignity.

Lopez: You mention Pope Francis and “accompaniment.” Have these almost five years with him now been mostly about listening? Are we too busy arguing to hear that message?

Art Bennett: Pope Francis has spoken a lot about the importance of listening. He connects the attentiveness of listening to God to the desire to accompany others. When Mary listened to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she was to conceive a savior, she immediately left to accompany her cousin Elizabeth. Deep listening leads to accompaniment. He has made us more aware of the limitations of transactional and consumer-oriented dealings with other people and the necessity of heart to heart encounters. Accompaniment entails walking side by side with radical respect and appreciation for the God-given dignity of the other

Lopez: Why should we work on empathy? Why must we do this personally? Can we do this culturally? This certainly doesn’t seem to be the most empathetic time.

Art Bennett: Empathy requires humility. Empathy is putting oneself in the other’s shoes. Empathy focuses on understanding the other person as a person with dignity — and conveying that understanding to the other. It is only a first step in encounter, the step of listening and understanding with respect. Ideally, the other person, feeling respected and understood will reciprocate and a deeper heart to heart encounter can happen. Empathy is critical in marital therapy when couples are at odds, in friendship, at work, in political discussions, and in any ordinary human interaction.

Lopez: If “true happiness . . . is a gift” what does this mean for everyone searching for happiness, finding themselves disappointed, depressed, or even despairing?

Laraine Bennett: Part of the problem is that we sometimes fail to receive happiness — the gift of true happiness — because we have decided that happiness looks a certain way. And then we ignore or even disdain the true happiness that God is wanting to give us. This is not to deny that there are very real problems and tremendous sufferings that people endure,leaving them feeling depressed, anxious, or even despairing. As Christ tells us, “In this world you will have trouble” (Jn 16:33). True happiness, true peace is not the absence of trouble or conflict. It is the peaceful heart, the listening soul that waits attentively for the Lord. God himself dwells in the silence of our hearts. The man who is truly free, truly in touch with that inner silence that Cardinal Sarah talks about, who is attentively listening to what God is telling him, that man — despite the troubles and anxieties of life — will have peace deep down in his soul. The vicissitudes of life will be like the waves of the ocean lapping at the shore; the deep joy within his soul is like the calm, quiet, dark depths of the mysterious ocean. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23).

Lopez: Why do you recommend writing a note to someone whose wisdom or guidance you are thankful for?

Art Bennett: Research has shown that expressing gratitude brings joy. We think that reflecting with gratitude on a wise person’s assistance will not only bring joy but will also remind us that we were exercising the cardinal virtue of prudence when we consulted that wise individual. Prudence is knowing what is the right thing to be done in a particular situation — and often that involves knowing when to consult with another, wiser individual.

Lopez: How can we learn from how the prophets of the Old Testament listened?

Laraine Bennett: I heard something fascinating in a recent Sunday homily. The homilist said that Scripture stories and the salvation story of the Bible are actually more real than what we ordinarily call reality. Instead of thinking of the stories of the Old Testament as quaint stories, probably allegories, why not treat them as portraying what is ultimately real, the ground of reality? The word of God didn’t just float down into the prophets’ laps as they sipped their morning coffee, they worked hard for it! Think about how many times Samuel was awakened in the night by a voice he thought was Eli’s. Or Habbakuk, who says that to hear the word of God, he had to be like a sentinel on the watch tower. Imagine the attention, the straining toward, the watchfulness required to be a sentinel on guard. Or Jonah who, once he heard the word of God, tries to flee from it — and we know how that turned out! Listening to God is not going to be as easy as we would like it to be. Listening is an art and a virtue, and thereby requires effort and practice.

Lopez: How important is this point: “God’s absence allows for his return into our hearts so that we can become his loving presence to one another”? Is that the key to understanding Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and just about any saint?

Laraine Bennett: The question about God’s absence or silence is fascinating. And, for anyone who has ever suffered, it is personally compelling as well. Why does God leave to go into another country (Matthew 21:33)? Why did God allow the Holocaust? Why does he permit evil and suffering? Why does he remain silent? We explore one answer in our book, based on a reflection by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis — Cardinal Sarah also addresses the question — posing a Jewish philosopher’s thoughts: that, in order to allow humans freedom, God had to renounce His almighty power and become a suffering God. We become His loving presence to one another; but also He suffers with us.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.