Becoming a Splendid Auditorium: How Listening Brings Us Together

Photo by George Kelly at Flickr

The news today is so full of stories from countries outside the United States that it’s weird to think of a time when that wasn’t the case. But it certainly wasn’t back when I was growing up in a medium sized town in southern Missouri. Our public school system didn’t emphasize world history and we didn’t have the internet back then, so it’s safe to say that I was fairly ignorant of the world outside our borders. However, that all changed for me once I hit college and was encouraged to study abroad. Here was my chance to learn about other cultures and have a great time. I was thrilled.

In 1991, I headed to the University of Oslo in Norway. My program was an international one which meant that my fellow students came from all over the globe. Many of them came for the world-renowned Peace Scholars Program. Unlike me who was there mostly for fun, they had serious concerns on their minds and did a lot of listening to their professors. I attended classes too but it was the students who gave me my true education.

Although there were students there from all over the world, the Eastern Europeans fascinated me the most. One of my roommates was Latvian, so I learned first-hand about life in the Baltic States and their struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. I listened as she detailed a life that was very different from mine. When we’d go window shopping, Lianna was amazed by the incredible variety of food available. Although Norway isn’t known for its food, there is quite an array of it and Lianna was in awe. In Latvia, they didn’t have a choice of cheese, butter or other types of food. Their only option was whether or not to buy what was offered should the store have any available.

Food wasn’t the only thing that was limited for them. My friend Raymond often wore a silly Donald Duck t-shirt. I thought he was just a fan (which I found odd in such a serious person) but no, it was the only shirt he could find that fit. Raymond could speak five languages fluently and told me he’d be “uneasy” until he could speak six. Being around a lot of people who could speak several different languages (and were contemptuous of those of us who only spoke one) was quite the eye-opener.

Then there were the things I took for granted which my new friends didn’t know much about, like microwaves, washing machines, and beauty regimens. I was happy to show them whatever I could but when Lianna asked if I’d teach her how to shave her legs, I refused. I insisted she shouldn’t even get started on that stupid habit, especially as I’d just learned how Gillette started the whole idea so they could double their profits.

While I may have been able to teach them a few things, my new friends taught me way more. I was troubled to hear they spoke better Russian than they did their own languages because that’s the language they were forced to learn in school. Then there was the difference in our finances. I’d brought plenty of money to spend but the Soviets limited the amount of money students leaving the country could take with them. Lianna had only the $50 she was able to smuggle out in her shoe. Others had even less since they chose not to take the risk. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Lianna really blew my mind by telling me there were probably some Soviet agents among our fellow students sent specifically to keep watch on the Baltic students. Since many of them were attending the Peace Scholars Program, they obviously were a threat to Soviet domination.

That summer was a tumultuous time for many of my fellow students. For those who know world history, the year 1991 may ring a bell because that was the year the Soviet Union ended. I didn’t immediately grasp the implications of what was happening but my friends sure did. I got a crash course in geopolitics through my fellow students from both the USSR and the Baltics. Tension was high. Although most of the students in the Peace Program were young and had no direct impact on policy, the personal was highly political. There definitely was a feeling in the air that violence could erupt at any moment and for any reason.

One day, there was almost a mini-riot in Norwegian History class when one of the Russian students’ watch started playing the national anthem of St. Petersburg. I’m still fuzzy on why it was bad but some people were so incensed that the professor had to call for a break. Another edge of violence was sharpened when a soccer ball was kicked into a picnic table where I was sitting with Sergei, a Russian friend. He commented — quite dismissively with an accompanying flick of his wrist (in a “shoo!” gesture)— to the Lithuanian soccer player, “You can have your freedom; just don’t ruin our picnic table.”

When I first met my foreign friends, I didn’t understand their anger or their determination to use their education to help their respective countries. As I got to know them better, I understood they were fighting for more than improving their own lives. They were fighting for the soul of their country, for who they were going to be as a people. I didn’t truly get it though because the United States as a country wasn’t something I’d thought much about. Our government always seemed like something removed from me, an entity that had little effect on my life. That’s all changed.

I get it now. I understand at a visceral level just what my Eastern European friends were telling me all those years ago. Since that time, I’ve matured and, most of all, I’ve listened. I’ve listened to the stories of people trying to succeed and being prevented from it by an uncaring government. I’ve listened as elected officials completely ignored constituents in order to satisfy their own agendas. And I’ve listened to the news as governmental entities crushed the dreams of those who’d done nothing wrong.

Because of these stories, I realize how vital it is to fight for the soul of your country because that’s how we save ourselves. Like the citizens of the Baltic States back then, Americans are now the ones who are demoralized, outraged, and exhausted but also determined. And in a few short months, we’re holding an election that’s going to decide who we are and how we move forward.

It’s a massive understatement to say that it’s gotten ugly. I’ve never seen such tension around politics; it’s like people have lost their minds. The vitriol is everywhere. You expect to see it in the streets with rallies, riots, strangers coming to blows on public transportation, and clashes between protesters and police. But the hostility is way more intimate than that. People are putting their fists through walls (when dinner parties were still a thing), decades-long friendships are ending, and family members are refusing to speak to each other. Unlike my friends in the Peace Program though, we’re not fighting outsiders; we’re fighting each other. We used to be able to get along even when we disagreed but no more. What’s happened to our civil discourse?

The answer to that is myriad — the tsunami of money that’s crashed into our democracy, the inaccuracy (to put it nicely) of information people are receiving, the abdication of critical thinking skills and the seeking out of only viewpoints that coincide with our own — but the largest factor may be the way we talk to each other. To borrow a phrase from Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Many seem to have forgotten (if they ever knew) how civil discourse operates. They think it’s all about talking but a huge part of communication actually involves listening. Hearing is about receiving sound waves; it doesn’t require a lot of effort but listening is much more involved. It takes hearing, thinking and understanding. Alice Duer Miller once said, “Listening is not merely not talking…it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.”

A lot of people are running into that blank wall because they’ve rarely experienced a splendid auditorium. I see this all the time. Whenever I counsel couples or families, listening is always a problem because, when emotions run high, it’s the first thing to go. That’s what’s happening to us as a country. We’re angry, we’re refusing to listen to one another and it’s only going to get worse. So what do we need to do in order to get through this most contentious of times? How can we start being unified again?

The first thing we need to do is acknowledge what’s driving the seething level of anger. Many people believe anger is a primary emotion but it isn’t. Anger is actually a mask that covers vulnerable emotions, specifically fear and sadness. Anger allows people to feel powerful while vulnerable emotions make people feel exposed and weak. No one enjoys feeling vulnerable, so it should come as no surprise that anger is the preferred emotion.

However, if we’re to get past our volatility, we must dig deeper into what’s actually going on and that means dealing with our vulnerability. People are afraid. We’re fearful of dying from a deadly virus, of living through difficult economic times and of what the future will bring. We’re terrified that things won’t get better and we don’t know what to do.

We’re also sad. With over 135,000 dead and counting, we’re saddened by the large-scale loss that was mostly unnecessary. And with severe environmental changes, a looming recession, and a long-overdue reckoning that our society has been built on inequality, people are finally understanding that our current way of living cannot be maintained. So we’re grieving for what we’ve lost and what we’ll inevitably lose. This is challenging because fear and grief are not feelings we generally encourage; we’re uncomfortable with them. As such, it’s difficult to accept these emotions but that’s exactly what we need to do because, oddly enough, they give people a way to connect.

Anger builds walls but vulnerability offers a bridge. Vulnerability can lead to listening. Vulnerability can lead to an understanding that, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Vulnerability can lead to connection.

In order to do this though, we need to truly talk with one another. We need to tell our personal stories, not repeat political spin we heard on the news. We need to share our emotions and let others know the reasons for them. And we need to listen. We need to empathize with what people are telling us and try to stand with them in their distress. If we do that for them, hopefully they’ll do that for us. Instead of arguing about why someone died, perhaps we can all agree that the death of a loved one is terrible and work together to prevent that from happening in the future. In short, we need to come together instead of constantly tearing each other apart.

My Eastern European friends figured this out years ago. They understood, in a way we here in the United States have yet to fathom, that only in unity is there power. On August 23, 1989, approximately two million people formed the Baltic Chain. In a stunning display, they literally stood shoulder to shoulder across all three Baltic States to demonstrate their desire for change. It worked.

Six months later, Lithuania declared its independence. In the summer of 1991, the Estonian and Latvian parliaments did the same. Although their circumstances were different, the Baltic people nevertheless showed us the way to improving our future. They created a splendid auditorium where their voices swelled in harmony, culminating in a roar that changed their fate for the better. We can do the same. But first we must listen.

Psychologist and writer. More of my writing can be found at www.thepsychologicalhook.com.

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