Pillaging through my own storage (junk) pile, I came across some old correspondence. Short little notes from friends of long ago. As I sat nostalgically, images nestled deep in my long term memory crept into my mind. Most of these people had been friends of mine. A few I do not remember knowing other than by acquaintance. I read and reread through all of the letters. And what struck me most was what the letters said about me.
Roughly ninety percent of the content was sentiments I recognized. That is, I could easily associate what was said to that letter's author. Much goings on about things we did, said or saw. The good part of them was they all seemed to say the same things about me; for example, they all remarked on my sense of humor. The other ten percent—and this was mostly consistent for each one—contained something I never knew was there. Words of affection, admonitions to keep in touch, addresses, phone numbers, party invitations and some unusual comments.
“Well,” you say, “perhaps it was from people you weren't that close to or interested in.” A good question. Partly true. Much of what was written came from people I would have liked to keep close. Even those I was less inclined to follow, it seems I should have acknowledge them in some way. You could say, “you just pushed away what you weren't interested in knowing.” That could be true. I could have wiped the memory of it early enough to believe I had never remembered it at all. To that I say, we usually remember the bad relationships as well as the good (sometimes more so). I suggest the answer lies in self-discovery. Truth reveals itself when you get caught seeing who you really are when you least expect to. And back in those days, I was too self-involved. I brushed over these words as though unseen. My expectations for who I was and what I wanted then only allowed my desires to matter. If what you said did not measure up to that, then they did not register for me. Honestly, I could not hide them because I do not believe I even saw them.
Now it sounds horrid, I know. As I put a spotlight on it today, it seems huge. And it is, I suppose because it is causing me to pause for something new. Really, we all do it. It is like gossip. No matter how much you protest, we all gossip. Funny thing is, I thought I was better today. Now I question that. Just how good of a listener am I. A few hours ago, I wrote an old friend who I have not spoken to in almost two years to tell her I was rubbish for having done so. Even those we care about, we gloss over without noticing them. Imagine what we do to strangers. Better yet, the person who takes your order in the drive through. What about the elderly lady eating alone in the restaurant. You are in a hurry to leave. You hear her silently, but you forget as you walk out the door.
Listening takes on many forms. It is as much what you hear, as what you read, what you see and what you feel. In this regard, we all fail to listen. Try this: tell someone something and five minutes later ask them to repeat it. It's like the rumor trail. I tell you, you tell someone. By the time it gets to the end, you have a different story. Ask them to tell you what your posture was or the inflection in your voice. Most of the time, you will not remember you said it—did it. I am not picking on you. I do it too.
So, why is that? Maybe it's because we just don't care. Maybe we are too busy thinking of our own thoughts, instead of listening in the moment. We are too busy thinking of our own response or our own next thing. Narcissism—“I would look away from my reflection, but I am just too pretty.” The key to listening is to keep your mouth closed and your mind still. Doing these two things, for most people, is hard like waiting in line to get your driver's license renewed—you know, the long line.
Personally, I am ashamed at how I treated those friends. They are long gone with nothing really to be done. Into the future, I can try to be better. Maybe these artifacts will help me do that. If anything, it may cause me to care more about people. To really care in a way that transcends my selfish idiosyncrasies. Who knows, we might just learn something about life, history and the universe. Most likely, I will forget what I just said. "Were you listening?”