Saturday, June 9, 2012

Articulate Listening

I have a word fetish. You don't have to know me well to know this about me. I became an English Major in college immediately, automatically, as if it were the only conceivable option. My passion to consume and produce written language in multiple forms overshadowed all other academic interests and worldly fascinations, as well as my need for a dependable career path. Sometimes I want to go back in time, grab myself by the throat, and force myself onto an easier, more clearly-marked path(one that involves earning a title or at least being "qualified" to perform the tasks of a paying job). But words had a serious grip on me then, and in a lot of ways they still do. When I hear a speaker or read a writer who has suddenly used the perfect words to pin down thoughts and feelings which have both shaken and evaded me, I want to scream my delight--I'm not exaggerating. It's like someone has finally scratched a deep, impossible itch that's been gnawing away at my brain and maybe sometimes my soul. It's that sudden flip of a light switch in a room with a mirror, and after it happens I see something about myself more clearly. I also realize that I'm not alone in that room. Someone else is seeing and naming something in me, too, and it's euphoric--that feeling of connection with myself and with someone else, that feeling of being seen, known, understood. Even if what's being said is something I didn't know I believed(something maybe that I thought I didn't), that moment of connecting with what I've found to be true, that connection over this truth with another person is incredible. It's some strange sort of relief that's hard to account for. It's some strange kind of bliss in finding that the grasping of my mind and the searching of my heart is valued, shared, understood, (in a sense) that it's right. Sound crazy? Sound unhealthy? You haven't heard the half of it.

 Over the years, some of my friends and family have told me that I'm good with words myself, and I certainly enjoy expressing myself with them. In fact, I get the same (and possibly greater) satisfaction out of writing or speaking beautiful words for others as I get from hearing them spoken for myself. That gnawing itch, deep down in my brain and soul that's satiated with well-crafted writing and speech drives me to craft my own words well, and it's all part of the same selfish desire. It's me wanting to discover and understand myself. It's me wanting others to discover, understand, and validate me. I work so hard to find the right words to make others understand me, make them agree with me, make them reinforce and applaud what I think and feel, and sometimes it works. People feel like they get something I've said, or I've said something that makes them feel like someone gets them, and I get complimented. "I just never knew you could write like that." "You're poem moved me so much." "I never thought about it like that, but you're right"--good grief! The level of gratification I get from those comments is obscene.

 No matter how much I mature or how much selfishness I shed, I'm guessing it will always feel wonderful when someone calls me articulate. (I'm human; I like being validated). As I grow older, however, and as I see more clearly the level of selfishness that drives me to perfect my own "giftings," I find that I'm growing less impressed with articulate speakers and more impressed with articulate listeners. I'm not talking about people who listen to hear themselves speak through others, as I've already described myself doing. I'm talking about people who listen to others just to understand who the other person is. The ability to discern the heart behind the meaning of the words of those reaching out for understanding (the willingness to offer this understanding to others, even on a small scale, before demanding it for oneself)is more rare, more beautiful, and can be more powerful than the ability to say things nicely. In the heat of an argument it's usually the person who extends understanding that breaks the tension in the room, not the person who's stated their case so well that they can't be refuted. In a room full of hungry people, someone needs to be willing to turn on the stove, and in a world full of lonely people looking for connection, someone needs to be willing to shut up and listen. Articulately. With discernment. With the desire to hear and understand. With the maturity to put their own validation on hold.

 Articulate listening--this is a gift I need to develop in myself.