Hearing and Listening

I remember strolling down a church hallway toward the Sunday school rooms, when I heard a sweet, little piping voice singing.  At first I couldn’t make out the words.  All I knew was it was the voice of a 4 or 5 year-old girl, and the tune was “We Are the Church Together.”  I finally arrived outside the door of the room where the little songbird was singing, “I am the jerk, you are the jerk, we are the jerks together — all who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the jerks together.”  The words are funny enough, but it was the little girls sincerity that put it over the top.  It brought to mind a little guy named Scottie in the first church I served who simply substitute words he knew for those he didn’t.  He frequently sang such classics as “then sinks by bowl, my Savior got to me,” “amazing grapes, how sweet they sound and saved a wrench like me,” and “to a home of God’s cholesterol” (instead of God’s celestial shore).  Ah, how easy it is to mishear and misunderstand (but, oh how difficult it is to admit our mistakes).

For me, a great challenge in the church is the distinction between “hearing” and “listening.”  We have “ears to hear” — hearing is a physical function; the ability to perceive sounds.  But listening is something else again.  Listening implies intention; we choose to listen.  The question is, do we listen well to what we hear?  I’m not so sure.  I think the human condition is that we filter out what we want to hear from all the other sounds and inputs that barrage us.  Selective listening is our normal default setting.  We can creatively reinterpret just about anything we listen to.  We are masters at ignoring everything we hear that displeases us, challenges our worldview, or disproves our assumptions.  It is amazing how little impact information makes on our opinions.  The government and media have now produced over 15,000 pieces of documentation that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks… and 19% of the residents of the United States still believe we were attacked by Iraq, thus justifying the war there.  The noise that gets in first is powerful — it conditions our ability to listen to what comes later.

I was talking with a woman who earnestly told me that hurricane Katrina was predicted in the Bible and that it was God’s judgment on the sinfulness of New Orleans.  I asked her what she was basing this understanding on, and she calmly told me that this was what her pastor taught and preached.  Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

But is it humanly possible for any of us to listen objectively?  Do any of us possess the capacity to listen without bias, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, or limited understanding?  Do we ever receive any message impervious to interpretation and personal assumptions?  I wonder.  I am forever amazed at the number of things I “know” that aren’t completely true, valid, or accurate.  I’m not sure humility is possible until a person is able to admit such limitations.

And humility is key.  As long as “sides” demand to be “heard” so that they can be “right” we are stuck.  In college, I conducted a research experiment in one of my psychology courses.  We played a series of sounds, asked people to identify them, and then rate on a scale of 1-to-10 how certain they were that they had correctly identified the sound.  The fascinating finding was this: those who scored themselves 8-9-10 on the certainty scale were wrong three times as often as those who scored themselves 3-4-5.  In the case of the experiment, certainty was the enemy of accuracy.  The best of the best in the experiment only identified 21 of 30 sounds correctly (70%), and of those who scored themselves 8-9-10, the best only identified 16 of 30 correctly (53%).  So, when a group of people sit through a 20 minute sermon on a Sunday morning, what do they actually hear?  How deeply are they listening?  What are they making of what they listen to?  How well would they be able to go tell another person “exactly” what they heard?

Of course, this level of ambiguity and inaccuracy does virtually nothing to keep people from “knowing” what was said.  Opinions crystallize into “knowledge,” and assumptions take on the force of fact.  But why do we keep doing this — not only to ourselves, but to each other?  Why do we argue and endlessly debate those things about which we could be (and probably are) wrong?  We have achieved a moderate level of agreement that women are not inferior to men, and that all other nations and races are not inferior to white Americans from a few select areas of the United States.  We do realize that ignorance impacts people of every type, category and cause.  No one is immune.  So why do we perpetuate such senseless and self-defeating behaviors?  I think it has something to do with a song I heard about the potential every person has (though it doesn’t have to be this way)… “I am a jerk, you are a jerk, we are all jerks together, even those who follow Jesus, find from time to time, yes that we’re jerks together!”

6 replies

  1. Intriguing that ambiguity is more truthful than is certainty.

    What a strange Creator and Reality we engage on our journey.

    The virtue of restraint or temperance or humility is one we have not done a good job of teaching and helping folks enter into a life-long growth relationship with. Relatedly, does a teaching of gifts imply a teaching of the virtues? My sense is we don’t really engage one without engaging the other.

  2. In case you needed scientific evidence for this, I’ve read studies demonstrating the prevalence of selective perception. Our brains like what is familiar, and they try to fit new information into our pre-existing frames, while discarding what doesn’t fit. We either don’t hear or see the contrary information, or we interpret it according to our existing frames.

    It’s also true that the first message heard tends to establish the frame. Lawyers working with juries (and witnesses) see and use this all the time.

    How, then, do we learn to suspend our frames in order to listen to new information? How do we become able to hear what contradicts our pre-conceived notions? I suspect it helps to be intentional about trying to do that, but then maybe that’s just my preconceived idea!

    • Oh, I know the research support is out there. For me, this is the strongest case for community. Until we have validation through some deeply won consensus, I’m not sure we’re really paying attention.

  3. Just ran into this quote that seemed related.

    Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. -Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, philosopher (1844-1900)

    Not that lies aren’t also enemies of truth.

  4. I think I appreciate what you are trying to say, but honestly I find it offensive to be called a jerk. Just because I disagree with someone or lose my cool, that doesn’t make me a jerk. I don’t think we have jerks in the church, I think we have broken people in need of love and understanding. I know you thought you were just being funny, but you were offensive instead.

    • Jean,

      Not my intention or desire to offend. I do, however, like to shake people up and get them thinking. In my work with churches all across the country (and of many denominations) I have seen some of the most un-Christian, disrespectful, damaging, hurtful, rude, hostile, aggressive, intimidating, condescending, bordering-on-violent behavior that I don’t believe it is helpful to define simply as “broken.” From time to time, even people in the church act like jerks, bullies, gossips, liars, back-stabbers, tattle-tails, and fair-weather friends. Certainly, these are all symptoms of our brokenness, but I believe we need to start naming them for what they are in order for the healing to follow. I do hear your repellance for the term “jerk” and I apologize that it offended you.

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