The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Just Listen . . . . [Chalice]

Presented February 18, 2018, by Susan Morrison Hebble, PhD

Opening Words:
By bell hooks

"The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom."

Meditation: Gentleness in Living
by Rev. Richard Gilbert

Be gentle with another-

It is a cry from the lives of people battered
By thoughtless words and brutal deeds;
It comes from the lips of those who speak them,
And the lives of those who do them.

Who of us can look inside another and know what is there
Of hope and hurt, or promise and pain?
Who can know from what far places each has come
Or to what far places each may hope to go?

Our lives are like fragile eggs.
They crack and the substance escapes.
Handle with care!
Handle with exceedingly tender care
For there are human beings within,
Human beings as vulnerable as we are,
Who feel as we feel,
Who hurt as we hurt.

Life is too transient to be cruel with one another; It is too short for thoughtlessness,

Too brief for hurting.
Life is long enough for caring,
It is lasting enough for sharing,
Precious enough for love.

Be gentle with one another.

Words before Talk:
1 Corinthians 13 God's Words Translation

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn't jealous. It doesn't sing its own praises. It isn't arrogant. It isn't rude. It doesn't think about itself. It isn't irritable. It doesn't keep track of wrongs. It isn't happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up.

Just Listen. . . .

The famous passage on love from Corinthians brings to mind one of my favorite signs at the Women's March a few weeks ago, the sign quotes Lin Manuel Miranda's 2016 Tony speech, a poem presented in the wake of the horrific mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub: The poem concludes beautifully and emphatically, "Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept away." On the sunny January day of this year's march, Miranda's words embodied a moving sentiment that sang out to all genders and races and generations, a sentiment hard to argue with and easy to celebrate. And it captured the mood of the gathering: a demonstration of collective affirmation and purpose, 300,000 strong.

As a spontaneous rendition of "All We Need is Love" broke out, one of my friends said, "boy, I hope they're listening"-meaning the "other" population, the population that might call those of us at the march "snowflakes"-but she said it tongue in cheek, because we all knew: sure, they were aware of our gatherings, but no, they weren't listening. They'd already made up their minds about us, had already dismissed our concerns and fears, put them (and us) in a box to be ridiculed or pitied or ignored. Just as we-let's be honest here--had made up our minds about them, about their position on the issues addressed on the signs proudly carried at the march.

But as successful as this march was in demonstrating the commitment of the resistance to the current administration-and that was its purpose: to demonstrate resistance-it really did not advance the conversation that needs to occur with our fellow citizens. If anything, it highlighted the ideological gulf that has becoming increasingly pronounced in this country.

Recent studies have shown that the already distinct political divide grew under Obama's presidency has grown wider and at a more accelerated rate since 2016. And it's not just that we disagree with each other: a Pew Research study points out that our antipathy toward each other has grown-we have far less respect for and tolerance of the "other" viewpoint. Yes, even those us who fight for "tolerance" and "respect" are, unfortunately, often intolerant and disrespectful ("Partisan Divide").

So you see, after the glow of a feel-good demonstration wears off, we must recognize that the real work that needs to be done involves not marching together but stepping out of our comfort zones, one at a time, breaking out of that bubble of confirming discussion and information, and connecting not only with those who think like we do (or who we assume think like we do) but doing the hard and uncomfortable and often deeply challenging work of connecting with those who don't think as we do.

It is easy and pleasant to listen to people we like, people we appreciate, people we anticipate will validate our world view, our values; the challenge, you see, is in listening-and I mean really listening-to people we don't like, to people we perhaps don't appreciate, to people whose world view and values, we assume, don't line up with our own. We may come away from such a conversation agreeing to disagree, but we may also find our own assumptions challenged, our understanding of an issue enhanced, our perspective of someone refined.

This is disorienting and unpleasant business . . . . Believe me, I know! What inspired this talk for me was just such an encounter that made my skin crawl. I left the brief conversation feeling angry (I could feel my blood pressure rise!) and frustrated (what should I have said? What COULD I have said?) and even, I'm ashamed to admit, a little smug (thank goodness I'm not so ill-informed!). As you can imagine, I wish that encounter had never happened.

So instead of wading into the scary waters of "the other side," we, perhaps at our most self-righteous, offer perfunctory acknowledgment of that side, or less admirably, rant about it to those whom we know will cheer us on in our outrage; or, when we see "the other" coming toward us, we may do a quick cut to the opposite side of the street (a metaphorical message, if nothing else); or if avoidance isn't an option, we take a deep breath and stick to 'safe' topics-although few topics are safe these days, are they? The weather-well, climate change may come up; our kids-well, there's that whole transgender bathroom thing; sports-well, do you support or disdain those who kneel during the anthem, that may be code for are you a patriot or an anarchist?

I am not saying anything new here. The research provides academic evidence of this divide, and we needn't look far to see the unsettling manifestation of those findings: a quick scan of our media outlets confirms that the citizens of this country are having a real hard time getting along these days.

Flip to any news station or even otherwise benign chat shows and you'll notice one common thing: everyone is talking, and no one is listening. Nope. Even the so-called professionals are talking, sometimes yelling, over their colleagues; sometimes the designated moderator seems like a wrangler, just trying to keep some order as her "esteemed" guests verbally duke it out. The discussion, if we can call it that, ends with no resolution but with a required commercial break-thank goodness!! It's reality tv at its ugliest, and the erosion of civility has spilled over into our everyday lives, into our own streets and living rooms.

Our nerves have become raw, haven't they, particularly in the past 18 months. Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton articulated this well in her New Year's piece, in which she refers to 2017 as the "year of anger." Glanton writes: "We had long hidden our true feelings beneath a flimsy veil of compassion. For the sake of political correctness, we had locked up our hatred, our intolerance and our disrespect for each other like a genie in a bottle - until a sorcerer came along and set it free."

In studies on how liberals and conservatives identify and frame their values, social psychologists have found that there are pretty distinct "sides": 'for example . . . liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do. And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do' (Willer qtd. in Shashkevich).

And the thing is, all of these values, reflect traditionally American values-so it's not like we can righteously say, 'oh man, your loyalty sucks!' Or 'there's no place for fairness in my life'!! But we get very angry with one another for not sharing our set of values-so angry that we not only stop listening to but stop interacting with people who, in 2015, might have happily been welcomed to our Thanksgiving table.

But responding to anger with anger separates us from one another; as a result, our impression of the person/people we're angry with becomes static and one-dimensional, which negates the possibility for any respect or collaboration or mutuality.

The good news is that some earnest folks in the public eye are creatively addressing the divide: for example, journalist Van Jones' wants his new show on CNN to "'detoxify' and 'depolarize' the chatter"; for one segment of the first show, he hops into a van with two white conservatives and a progressive African American pastor, and they drive around Charlottesville, VA and talk about the recent turmoil there. And comedian and activist (and Bernie Sanders supporter) Sarah Silverman recently launched a well-received online show called, "I Love You, America," for which she uses "honesty, humor, genuine interest in others. . . . to connect with the un-like-minded," an endeavor she feels is more "crucial" now than ever.

And several communities have sprung up on-line and in brick and mortar neighborhoods offering incentives and practical solutions to "bridge the divide," extending the notion that "even one person can change the world." Many of these programs focus on fostering non-partisan public service leadership to address "'the deep fault lines' exposed by the 2016 election" and to promote "a deeper understanding" between and among communities" ("Bridging"). Some, like L!ve Café, consciously situated between one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods and one of its wealthiest suburbs, offer physical space with the intention to "challenge . . . . [people] to move beyond what is safe and comfortable to a life that . . . . inspires us to go deeper in who we are" (Andreeva).

There are dozens of examples of these sorts of programs, but suffice it to say, they are all adopting the same approach as the camp counselors in the classic Disney movie, "The Parent Trap." Remember that one? The 1961 Hayley Mills version? The 1998 Lindsay Lohan version? In that story, as you may recall, two girls, who look eerily similar, unwittingly attend the same summer camp and, of course, hate each other; so they are forced to live together, which (spoiler alert) involves delightful high jinx as they sort out their differences and learn to love each other. The idea is that if people of disparate points of view can get together in a somewhat controlled setting, look at each other as individuals, and have a conversation, then disconcerting differences can be addressed and new, positive connections formed. OK, now I realize I've just cited the wicked internet, the fake news media, and Disney studios . . . . some would call these questionable sources?... and I've made it sound really easy and even kind of jolly or amusing to patch up this divide. And this issue is not so simple, for it is both national in scope but also quite personal for many of us.

Look, I know there's no kumbaya moment in our future when we'll all come together and dissolve into hugs and maybe break into song, like in the Coca Cola commercial. And no, we aren't meant to have meaningful conversations with everyone we meet! And I don't know if I ever will have a meaningful conversation with the person who got my ire up a few weeks ago. But I must believe that with self-awareness, compassion, and intention we can connect-or reconnect-with at least some folks.

The thing is, this work is necessary not just in regard to the current, sometimes overwhelming, political divide in this country: for we all know of relationships broken or at least damaged since the election. But what we may not realize is that even on the micro level, the most personal, non-political level, our relationships require an attention and respect that we don't often provide. And that attention and respect are possible only if we listen, truly listen, to the 'other' person. We all-and I include myself in this-we all could use a little tutorial on this skill, which we probably think we've mastered.

Let's admit something: When we're having what seems to be a conversation, we may look like we're really listening, we may even convince ourselves that we're really listening, but let's face it, most of us are actually planning what we're going to say back before we hear out the other person. Relationship expert, Stephen Covey, identifies this problem as one that essentially kills the potential for a true conversation-a give-and-take-respectful-mind-opening-conversation. "Most of us don't listen with the intent to understand," he says; "we listen with the intent to reply" (qtd. in Headlee).

And I think one of the reasons we do this-sort of get ahead of the exchange-is because we have come to look at conversation as a competition, something that must be won in order for it to be successful. Like stealing the basketball and tearing down the court to dunk a basket, we often start reacting to-correcting-rebutting what the other person is saying before she's even finished saying it. We want to score our points-to cheers, if possible-before she gets a chance to take her own shot. That may work in basketball, but not in interpersonal relationships.

So, if we revise our approach to conversation-personal conversations and political conversations-if we take out the competitive piece and think of the exchange as "dialogue" instead of "debate," we may engage in a more authentic and more illuminating discussion. The only prize to be won is, perhaps, a richer understanding.

There's a wonderful TED talk presented by two best friends, Caitlin and Lauran, recorded in the wake of the election. In a sort of flip of "The Parent Trap" script, the two began as best friends, but as they discovered that they had voted in opposition in November of 2016, their friendship nearly dissolved. But they chose to address the elephant-and donkey-in the room and not only talk, but listen.

Their friendship is stronger today for it. "What if we change the way the way we think about political conversations," Lauran says, "What if, in these heated moments, we chose dialogue over debate? When we engage in dialogue . . . we replace our ego and our desire to win with curiosity, empathy, and a desire to learn. Instead of coming from a place of judgment, we are genuinely interested in the other person's experiences, their values, and their concerns." The wisdom these two friends share is not limited to our political exchanges, but applies to conversations we may have about anything important in our lives with anyone important to us (Quattromani and Arledge).

And here are a few simple rules we can adopt if we're committed to having a real dialogue: (Adapted from Headlee and Lesser.)

Focus, really focus on the individual (not the ideology) before you,
Assume you have something in common and find that something,
Recognize that "conversations are not a promotional opportunity," so avoid bragging, pontification, or condescension
Be unafraid to say, "I don't know."
Ask open-ended questions, and assume you have something to learn.

It takes energy, it takes mutual commitment: It takes a willingness from both parties exercise compassion and patience and perhaps seek a healthy balance of both skepticism and acceptance. And you have to accept that the only way to truly understand someone else's perspective-someone else's values and fears and hopes and curiosities-is to listen respectfully, to inquire sincerely, to share honestly, to be willing to change your own mind, even just a little bit.

For listening is a kind of radical love. It means accepting vulnerability, giving up some control of the soundwaves and of our predictive tendencies, and taking in good faith what the other person is saying. If we assume we have not just something to share with the other person but something to learn from that person, then we honor the vulnerability and the curiosity and the compassion in each of us.

And who benefits from such compassionate communication? We all do. There's an African philosophy, called Ubuntu, which means "I am what I am because of who we all are" (Lesser). A healthy dialogue, then, is important not just for me, not just for you, but for us.

So, embrace the simplicity and fairness of listening and "Just Listen." When you listen intentionally, setting aside bias and presumption, you may actually see the human being standing before you, and you may catch a glimmer of the humanity you share, you may affirm "the inherent worth and dignity of every person," not just those who validate our own world view. You may embody the ideals of the radical 16th century Unitarian Francis David who insisted that "we need not think alike to love alike."

Closing Unison Words
#694-Frederick E. Gillis

May the Love which overcomes all differences,
Which heals all wounds,
Which puts to flight all fears,
Which reconciles all who are separated,
Be in us and among us
Now and always.

Works Cited:

Andreeva, Nellie. "Hulu Nabs Sarah Silverman Topical Show 'I Love You, America' from Funny or Die." Deadline/Hollywood. 27 March 2017. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.
"Bridging the Divide: A Public Service Leadership Program." The University of Chicago: Institute of Politics. N.d. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.
Glanton, Dahleen. "Good bye 2017: The Year of Anger." The Chicago Tribune. 1 Jan 2018. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018. Web.
Headlee, Celeste. "10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation." TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. May 2015. Web. Lesser, Elizabeth. "Take 'the Other' to Lunch." TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Dec. 2010. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018. Web. "Our Ethos: L!ve." L!ve.
"Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider, The." Pew Research Center: Us Politics & Policy. 5 Oct. 2017. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
Quattromani, Caitlin and Lauran Arledge. "How our friendship survives our opposing politics." TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. July 2017. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.
Shashkevich, Alex. "Empathy, respect for one another critical to ease political polarization, Stanford sociologist says." Stanford/News. 20 Jan. 2017. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018. Web.

©2018 Susan Morrison Hebble, PhD

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, PhD., Susan Morrison 2018. Just Listen . . . ., /talks/20180218.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.