Hanging inside my bathroom door is on old poster, with torn and dog-eared edges. It illustrates a poem on top of an image of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Nights. I see the poster almost every morning as I get ready for the day, and love the positive message it affords me when I take the time to embrace it.
The poem, Desiderata - by Max Ehrmann reminds me how to conduct myself in order to remain happy and content. The first block of the poem is the foundation of my Giving Story and goes like this: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”
My gift is the gift of listening. Listening completely can be a very difficult task, as my attention is always being tugged in various directions by family, friends, hobbies, business, and ego.
I imagine my listening ability like a dog on a leash. The person holding the leash is the person I should be listening to – following their words with my entire being. But alas - my mind wanders. My attention resembles my dog’s nose, which seems to get yanked from one interesting smell to another against her will, pulling against the leash that is so firmly resisting her escape. It takes a curiously intense effort for me to focus all my attention on the words that are flowing toward me, and ignore the wonderful smells that are vying for my attention. But I try. I really try.
Lately I am getting better at being a good listener. Giving the gift of my whole attention – partially because I want people to listen to me! I am not the most articulate person, and seem to have trouble forming my thoughts into words when I need to the most. I have come to the startling conclusion that “the dull and the ignorant” in Ehrmann’s poem, is a label that could easily be affixed to me – not because I am really that dull and ignorant, but because I am not a good talker. As a result, I have had my fair share of being ignored and interrupted and I really feel disrespected when that happens. Nevertheless, I catch myself interrupting others! Usually because I think I know what they are going to say, and my ego wants to be heard… Or I listen, but don’t really hear, because my mind is busy sniffing other things. Receiving the gift of a friend’s undivided attention is such a great feeling, which encourages me to remember to give the gift of my undivided attention. Likewise, I don’t want to ignore others, because I know how that feels. When I find someone “dull” or “ignorant”, I think of Desiderata, and know that everyone has their story.
The gift of practicing being a better listener has manifested in so many wonderful ways. For one, I am more patient and empathetic. My aging parents have this annoying tendency to repeat themselves and this has been going on for years. I used to get very impatient when my dad would start off on a story that he has already told me, and I would interrupt him with the statement, “Yes, I know - you already told me about that.” Or my Mom will not let me finish my sentence, and she interrupts me to share a similar experience, thought or perception. Gawd! How that irritates me!
Well, there is no better teacher than one’s own experience, and I recently realized that I do the same thing with my kids. I have caught my mind wandering as my son tells me a story, and later, I ask him a question that I should already know the answer to – but do not – because I wasn’t listening. He says, “Mom, we already talked about this!” And suddenly I am ashamed and embarrassed, because I realize I wasn’t listening. I also catch myself interrupting my daughter mid-sentence, because I think I know where her story is going, and I have a need to help her find a solution to a problem that I don’t even fully understand, because I did not let her finish. She has no problem asking me to let her finish before jumping to conclusions. And again, I feel so bad. How can I interrupt people like that, when I know how rude it is? I have found that being a good listener takes a lot of discipline and practice, and most difficult of all, it requires putting a muzzle on my ego.
I have also become keenly aware of how technology has the potential to impede my ability to be a good listener. Cell phones and computers are always nearby and it is so sad how people can be sitting in the physical presence of loved ones, but focused on their electronic devices instead of the beautiful people right there next to them. I see it happening all the time, wherever I go, and I am also guilty of doing it. This morning, I was talking to a friend on the phone, and sitting in front of my computer. As we chatted, I was “multi-tasking” and doing some research online. Seriously, I know that my full attention is not being given to my friend when I am also focusing on the computer. That is disrespectful and wrong – and just another opportunity for me to work on being a better listener.
Yesterday my daughter shared with me that when she is with a friend, she ignores her cell phone. She said that she has been reprimanded by the ignored caller for not answering her phone, and her reply is always, “I was with someone!” Period. I think that is extremely wise! As a Mom, I have adopted the habit of wanting to be available for my kids whenever they need me, but that has created a situation of being tethered to my cell phone. I am doing better at not answering, letting people leave messages, and calling them back when it is appropriate, but I also need to stay off the computer when I am on the phone. Finally – who invented call waiting? Have you ever been on the phone and had someone interrupt your conversation because they had another call coming in that was apparently more important than you? I have, and I have also been guilty of doing just that. Today, I try to ignore incoming calls when I am already talking with someone. I am lucky to have grown up in a time before cell phones and even before answering machines, because I know it’s possible to survive without having instant access to everyone. Our technology is a gift of the times, but can also be a curse. A phone call or a computerized message should never take precedence over personal face-to-face time with my loved ones.
I work on being a better listener every day, and I know I am getting better, because my kids are not as often irritated with me for ignoring them or forgetting what they told me. I still get irritated with my parents when they repeat themselves, or interrupt me, but now, I usually just let them talk and try really hard to be patient and tolerant. I remind myself that they are getting older, and someday I want my kids to have the same patience with me when dementia is knocking on my door or even taken up residency in my memory banks. Finally, I want my interactions with the people I am with to always come before electronic networking, web-surfing, and even phone calls. If I want people to listen to me, I have to start by giving that gift of my full, undivided attention.
Cami’s book, 29 Gifts in 29 Days really made me stop and think about what I “give” to others on a daily basis. As Cami points out, gifts do not have to cost money and can come in countless forms. Max Ehrmann’s poem, Desiderata – helps me remember the very important gifts I can give – including the gifts to myself which really are life-changing and result in a life that is cheerful and happy… Simply by doing the right thing.
Hi Jenny...I can't see the last line of your story. would you please email the story to me. I want to make sure I have it all (I think there is some sort of follr thing that sometimes cuts off the last line or two. Also, if we put line spaces after a lot of text, the site thinks it's the end of the text. Anyway, thanks, Angel