Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dear Hilary, Love, Hilary (On Listening)

I tried this experiment in the month of May, when I wrote an advice column to myself. I asked the question (about dreaming) and tried to give an answer (it was incomplete). Today I'm wondering another question, and I wanted to share it with you. And of course, I'm inspired, constantly, it seems, by Dear Sugar's words of beauty and truth, truth that enters the room and sits there. And she inspires me, with the possibility of learning to listen to the quiet place and learning to live from it.

Dear Hilary,

I'm not a very good listener. I can hear everything fine, hear what my friends say, hear what my parents say, hear what various people want to see my life become and who they hope I am. I ask for advice about things - what to do about liking someone who doesn't like me back, what to do about graduate school or buying a new computer. But whenever I pray, I don't want to listen. I don't want to know what God thinks about what I'm doing or saying or what He thinks about... well, hardly anything. I know myself, I know what I want, and I don't want to listen to what He wants. And I have all these voices in my head already, from past expectations to teachers to my friends to my own beliefs to what I imagine God wants to potential consequences and... I just can't hear anything even if I was listening. I have a feeling this could spell trouble. What do I do?

Not Listening

Dear Not Listening,

A very wise and dear person once told me that there is this thing called "the quiet place." We named it that after she had been mentoring me for a little over a year. Every so often in the course of our time together she would wave her hand in front of my face and say, "that? that right there? that's the quiet place." And we would sit in silence as she nodded and I tried to figure out what about my lapse into defeated silence at the unanswerable nature of my questions equalled "the quiet place."

The truth is, this wise person wasn't talking about a place of no external noise. The quiet place isn't hundreds of miles into the desert or an abandoned forest or out in the middle of the ocean. The quiet place exists on a bustling Baltimore street or in the subway or in a crowded board room or while you are talking to your friends over sangria and mexican food. It's a place without internal noise. And it sounds to me like you are chock full of internal noise, love.

You have all of these words and sentences and thoughts and hopes spinning through your mind like tops set loose down a set of steps. They hop from one stair to the next randomly and without warning. A mind like that can't listen. A mind that's desperate to follow one train of thought to its conclusion (only to get rear-ended by another thought) is not able to listen. You are caught in all of these expectations and hopes... and you can't listen to any of them well.

So, love, what do you do? You go still. Like a bird on a telephone line, their hollow bones clutching firm to the swaying wire. They are still. Watch how they tilt their heads to taste the wind. Do that, too. Fold in your wings (you aren't ready to use them yet, anyway), and hold on to the wire and tilt your head to the wind. That's the quiet place. Where there is One voice, and He says, "I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth." Where there is One Person, and He says, "Come to me."

And as for listening but not listening, wanting what you want and believing that you know best, I can only tell you that what you want now is not what you will want tomorrow or the next day. The life you envision for yourself at this moment before the beginning is not the life you will end the day grateful for tomorrow. You said it before: spend your heart leaning on Him. Ask for daily bread. Ask for this day's work. Ask for help in this one small moment, when all you want more than anything is to find the right word for the swaying bird on the wire with his hollow bones and his bright eyes.

And then, love, when the rest has faded and you are in the quiet place, cup your hands around a mug of tea and remember, "man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deuteronomy 8.3).


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