Learning to Listen

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I am an introvert, which means I spend a lot of time in my own head. A lot of time in my own head. And I’m ok with that, really. In fact, I began composing this particular blog piece while I was driving my kids home from soccer practice, lost in my own thoughts while the two of them were lost in their own mutual world.

As an introvert, I’ve always been a better writer than speaker. I’m much better when I can sit down and write things out, revise, think, revise again, and then publish my perfectly reasoned, articulate thoughts. I would have been terrible in high school debate. Not because I wouldn’t have been able to come up with something to say. I just would have come up with the perfect response while sitting on the bus on the way home. And maybe that is why I have found social media to be my perfect medium because, over the years, I’ve come to see it as the perfect place to share the thoughts, opinions, ideas, theses, theories, etc. that have been forming in my introvert brain for decades. I could share these things after carefully wording my thoughts, revising them, checking the comments for unintentional snarkiness, and then posting so that my voice could be heard. I didn’t comment on social media because it was a way for me to hide behind a computer screen; I commented on social media because writing is the only way I can guarantee that I can put together a well reasoned, fully coherent thought.

Then 2016 happened.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I really do love and appreciate the invention known as social media. I didn’t jump on the bandwagon until MySpace was dying out, so I have only ever had a Facebook page, but I opened my Facebook page well before my first pregnancy. That meant I got to share all baby related news with family and friends in real time. I didn’t have to wait to tell everyone I was pregnant. I just announced it on Facebook. I didn’t have to spend a lot of money mailing pictures to everyone so they could see what our new bundle of joy looked like. I just posted the photos on Facebook. And this became the modus operandi for nearly every single major life change from that point on: our move to another city, the start of grad school, a new job, another baby, the loss of a dog, the decision to move to a different state, the addition of two more dogs to our family, our many adventures. Social media allowed me to get back into contact with high school and college friends and I have watched some of those friendships grow. It has allowed me to stay in close contact with former students, former colleagues, and even former instructors. While I refuse to venture into other forms of social media for time’s sake, I love what social media has allowed me to do in terms of my relationships and in opening up my world.

Then 2016 happened.

Somewhere in finding my “voice” during the 2016 election cycle, I discovered that many, many others had also found their voices. And as they shared their voices, wounds that had appeared to heal over the decades and centuries were suddenly ripped back open. I hurt, not because I felt personally attacked (well, I did a couple times but my husband helped to talk me back from the ledge on those occasions) but because the words they said and shared hurt me to my soul. I tried to stick to issues about which I was very knowledgeable  or in which I had a stake, but I found myself sucked in on issues about which I had no expertise and yet I felt the need to “correct” what I saw as “incorrect” thinking, if only to encourage others to see another perspective. Sometimes I jumped in because I felt that the echo chamber had become so loud that no one was considering the other side at all and I naively wanted to bring the conversation back to earth, only to be sucked into a poisonous vortex from which there appeared to be no escape. During the last year there was a lot of talk about people who gave up friendships and cut off ties because of things they had seen and read, and while I did block a couple feeds from my wall, I tried as hard as I could to treasure the diverse views I saw on a daily basis. I only “unfriended” a small number of people, mostly because I didn’t want their rhetoric spilling onto my own Facebook page. I got through the 2016 election with my Facebook friend list, and my genuine friendships, mostly intact. But I also knew that a change was needed.

And so in 2017, I have decided to step back and learn to listen, really listen.

As someone who thrives on deep, meaningful conversation, taking a step back to just listen is not easy. I love to hear what other people have to say, but then I want respond, sharing my own experiences and insight, sometimes jumping in well before I should. Again, this is something that has become increasingly easy to do, thanks to the “magic” of social media. Unfortunately, it has also been the cause of many a destroyed relationship nationwide over the past year. And so I have resolved, albeit not perfectly, to only comment when I have an “expert” voice to throw into the ring, and I have attempted to do so with respect to those with whom I might disagree. And when I don’t understand another’s point of view, I have resolved, again albeit not perfectly, to ask questions so that I can better understand. I haven’t been perfect. As an educator I have publicly expressed my irritation at the appointment of Betsy Devos to the post of Secretary of Education. While I don’t regret speaking out against her, I did post some things that were more inflammatory than I intended and I got called on it by a couple people I respect. As always, my intent was not to offend, but to inform on an issue about which I am passionate, and an issue that affects me on a daily basis. In other areas, I have chosen to take a step back and listen. A month ago I joined a large Facebook group with the intent of working towards racial reconciliation. One of the rules of the group is that new members cannot comment or post anything for the first three months. At first, I thought that this requirement was excessive. Then I started reading posts. To be honest, the more I learn, the more I discover I don’t know. I’m glad the rule is there. It has forced me to internalize and process a lot of things I might have otherwise spoken to without actual knowledge. Additionally, I’ve decided to listen to more podcasts about different topics so that I can be both better informed and have a stronger base for my own personal beliefs. I continue to listen to and read fiction and non-fiction books that cover a variety of issues and genres. Some of these selections affirm what I already know and believe, some of these books challenge what I have always “known” and believed, and some of these books just challenge me to see things in a different way. It is important to expose ourselves to ideas that run contrary to our own views. Not because it helps us to better understand our “enemy,” but because it helps us learn how to dialog with fellow humans. If we understand why an individual sees the world differently than us, we will be better equipped to converse with them instead of talking at them. I continue to be thankful for a diverse friend base that both affirms and challenges me to see things in a different way, and I am thankful for those friends with which I am able to “agree to disagree” without losing our mutual respect for each other. In short, I have decided to take a step back and practice an important ingredient for empathy: listening.

All of this does not mean I won’t occasionally pontificate on issues about which I am knowledgeable and it doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally step in to try to get someone see a different perspective, to encourage them to “be still” and listen as well. I don’t want to give up on social media. As a woman who has lived all over the country and who has friends and family all over the US and in several places around the globe, I don’t want to give up the amazing connection that social media gives us to share our lives with each other in real time. I also want to continue to access the open forum, the ability to discuss and share and challenge each other. But I want to challenge my friends to listen to each other. If someone shares an experience with you that contradicts all that you think you know about the world, it may be a good time to ask questions and listen to answers without feedback. It may be time to step out of the echo chamber and into the unknown.

World peace may just be a beauty pageant dream, but world understanding is possible if we just take a moment to learn to listen.

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