October 18th, 2020 Sunday Service Message: Seeing to Understand

Deep Listening

In the third talk of our Fall Program series based on See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love1 by Valarie Kaur, Rev. Joanne tells us of a goal that Kaur has set forth – to make Love a public ethic in the next twenty five years.

Reminding us again that there are three legs of the stool of revolutionary love, the other, the opponent, and ourselves, this week Rev. Joanne addresses the second leg – the opponent.  In concert with Kaur’s idea of making Love a public ethic in the next twenty five years, she tells us that an opponent is not only someone or something external to us, but can often be our own selves.

Kaur says that when we are in disagreement with another, it tends to be a sign that there is a wound lying under the disagreement.  This certainly can be true.  When we receive criticism from another person, it is often more stinging when we realize that the criticism does in fact have an element of truth to it.  If a person is criticized for being overweight, or lazy, or drinking too much, if these things are true it is a natural reaction to raise our defenses.  Of course, the manner in which the criticism is given matters.  Name calling, talking behind another’s back, or not-so-friendly jabs elicit one type of reaction, where words coming from a place of genuine concern evoke another.  But it is also the case that disagreements and criticism are sometimes not the result of an underlying wound.

If someone criticizes us for something that is not true, we do not raise our defenses in the same way.  The “opponent” we encounter when the criticism is valid (whether it is delivered kindly or not) is really ourselves.  When the criticism is not valid, the “opponent” is another person.  Kaur tells us we can help to soften such situations by “deep listening.”  When we give our attention to another person and truly listen to what they are saying, we have a better chance of understanding the reason for their criticism.

When we get angry in such situations, we run the risk of losing our ability to listen, understand, and reason with our “opponent.”  The great boxer Muhammed Ali was a master at winning his matches before he even stepped in the ring.  There was showmanship involved, to be sure, but after weeks and even months of goading his opponent, by the time the match began his opponent’s emotions were running high and their ability to focus on the task at hand greatly diminished.  It is also well documented that frequent, uncontrolled anger has serious health consequences.  The risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and substance abuse all increase.

This is not to say that we should never become angry.  Kaur says that there is a “healthy” anger that she calls divine rage.  She tells us that we must express such anger within a “safe container” so that we do not lose control of our senses or commit acts that we otherwise would not dream of doing.  The famous example of Jesus upturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple of Jerusalem is an example of healthy rage.  Profaning the Temple grounds and charging usurious rates of exchange to exploit the people, Jesus was justified in his wanting to remove the moneychangers from the Temple.

Kaur tells us we should express anger not from rage or as a desire for vengeance, but as a means to make positive changes.  In order to do this, we must learn to face our anger.  Many times it is not people “out there,” but someone within our family.  Kaur tells of her own experience of sexual abuse by a family member.  Her family responded by wanting to keep it “private” and not call the police.  She did not confront the perpetrator, but managed her trauma through the help of a therapist and family support.  She realized that the perpetrator was experiencing hurt within himself.  While it is a mature and spiritually advanced to have compassion for one who has hurt us, we must be careful not to allow such abuses to continue.

It is often said that forgiveness is not about the other person, but about not allowing some hurt we have experienced to control our thoughts and our lives.  This is true.  But it is also true that forgiveness does not mean leaving ourselves in a situation that leaves open the possibility for additional harm to occur.  This is, of course, a very different matter if the person being abused is a child.  Young people have little or no agency in protecting themselves, and often do not understand the reasons for the abuse.  Adults almost always have the ability to make choices.

Kaur is correct in saying that everyone benefits from a practice of compassionate listening.  It is also true that once we have done “deep listening” our opinion and position about a topic may be unchanged.  Even if we completely understand the reasons for someone acting in opposition to us, this does not mean that we will or should change our view just because we now understand them.  A reaction of defensiveness can be a sign that a criticism is correct, but it can also be a natural reaction for self-preservation.

Human emotions have evolved as a mechanism for effectively navigating our environment.  Love, happiness and joy signal – yes, more of that, please.  Anger, sadness and depression signal – nope, I’d rather not have that.  But our emotions can deceive us.  Just because we have “righteous indignation” does not guarantee we are correct.  How many people were angry at manumission of slaves, or universal suffrage?  Such reactions, Rev. Joanne reminds us, could be seated in fear of a changing society.  And fair enough.  Changes can be good.  But changes can sometimes not be good.

When people see something in their society that is unfair, wanting changes toward justice is absolutely warranted.  But we must learn from history that replacing one injustice with another is not the answer.  This is where Kaur’s advice for “deep listening” is crucial.  When we give our honest and heart felt attention to those we disagree with, we definitely increase the probability of a mutually beneficial solution being found.  But as the Apostle Paul tells us:  Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  Ephesians 6:13.

Now Go and Be the Light.

Scripture:

When one’s actions are right, the understanding is perfect.  Without good deeds, it becomes more and more deficient.  Prays Nanak, what is the nature of the spiritual people?  They are self-realized; they understand God.  Sikh Guru Granth Sahib Ji, page 25

Spiritual Practice:

This week practice deep listening.  If possible, listen deeply to those who you may consider opponents, or those you typically disagree with.  This could be someone in your family, a neighbor, or a friend on social media.  Listen deeply for understanding and not to control the conversation or change someone’s mind.  Listen as a way to inform your actions and be open to the possibility of cultivating additional, and sometimes unlikely, allies.

Greg Skuderin

1See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love: Kaur, Valarie, Random House Publishing Group, Jun 16, 2020.