The Courage to Listen Well

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You’re hiking along a shallow stream, green foliage to your left and right, sharp stones pressing through the soles of your boots. You spot a small log, and the urge to sit down takes over. Your legs ache. Just as you sit and toss your cumbersome backpack to the ground you hear something in the nearby brush. The sound, at first soft and muffled, solidifies into steps. You suddenly remember there are mountain lions in the area. You spring up as if called to attention. You watch in stillness for the tangle of green to reveal something, a muscular hind leg, a feline snout.

Your heart is pounding and you feel your stomach drop — that same sensation you get when a car breaks suddenly in front of you on the freeway. You’re ready, though not sure for what: to run, fashion a stray branch into a weapon, play dead? A part of your brain, the hypothalamus, instructs your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol — slowing your digestion; rushing blood to the muscles in your arms and legs; and sharpening your senses of smell, sight, and sound.

What happens to your body in this alarming but hypothetical situation can also happen while sitting with someone in an otherwise safe environment, like in a cafe or across the dinner table. Instead of a rogue mountain lion, however, the perceived threat takes the form of an idea couched in a phrase or series of words — one contrary to a tightly held worldview, belief, or way of life.

In the last issue of the Viewpoint, we explored the importance of using words to reflect Christ’s love to others through respectful discourse and dialogue, especially when it seems a somewhat unpopular approach in our current civic climate. While the proper use of speech has its role, what about the latter half of the equation? What does it look like to listen to and receive others in dialogue with the radical love Christ asks of us, even when it’s not easy? And how do we model a spirit of hospitality, one that receives with respect and love the “stranger” amongst us in beliefs, values, or thinking?

ARE WE WIRED NOT TO LISTEN?

Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times journalist and bestselling author, hosts a podcast called Revisionist History. In the 2016 episode titled “Saigon, 1965,” Gladwell delves into the U.S. government’s attempt to gather intelligence on the Viet Cong through the interviewing of hundreds of Viet Cong soldiers and their allies. The effort resulted in a whopping 65,000 pages of transcribed interviews — making it, according to Gladwell, one of the most “detailed portraits of an enemy” ever conducted in martial history. However, and this marks the fascinating “twist” of the episode, the same seemingly objective intelligence leads to vastly different conclusions.

Two European intellectuals — Leon Gouré from Russia and Konrad Kellen from Germany — interpreted the intelligence in contrary ways. Gouré reviewed the transcripts and claimed certain victory for the U.S. due to declining Viet Cong morale. Kellen, on the other hand, spotted imminent defeat for the U.S. As the episode continues, we discover their interpretation of the same information is the result of their deep personal experiences, hopes, and fears. Gouré, a refugee to the U.S. because of the Iron Curtain’s unfurling reach across eastern Europe, felt he had no choice but to believe the U.S. could win the war. He subconsciously understood that if the U.S. didn’t win, there was no other country left in the world to which he could flee. It was a matter of self-preservation. Kellen, on the other hand, had witnessed the Nazi rise to power, and knowing what human beings were capable of — and how powerful the will to violence can be — he believed Viet Cong morale could never be weakened.

Part of the problem with listening to others, especially when it comes to issues that resonate deeply with us such as politics or religion, is that we are in some sense designed not to listen. As in the case with Gouré and Kellen, we are primed to maintain our worldviews with the same vehemence as if protecting our own lives.

Dr. Ross Oakes Mueller, chair of PLNU’s Department of Psychology, explained that psychologists and brain researchers often describe our brain in terms of three parts: the reptilian, mammalian, and humanoid. The reptilian part is responsible for keeping us alive: regulating breathing and digesting, managing our fight or flight response, keeping us ever aware of potential threats. The mammalian part of the brain involves the limbic system and our ability to attune to another person, to be nurturing, and to signal empathy and affection. And the humanoid part includes our ability to think critically and abstractly, understand language and symbolism, and use moral reasoning.

“When we feel threatened, it activates this reptilian part of the brain, which leads us to fight, flight, or freeze,” Oakes Mueller said. “We go into security-seeking mode, and tend to do things that defend ourselves. Even if we are generally empathic and understanding of people, when we feel afraid, the reptilian part naturally takes over.”

This proves valuable when we are in physical danger, but what about when we are fielding queries from someone with divergent ideas or threatening beliefs?

“People tend to develop a worldview in which they have a role, and this role helps to create and bolster a sense of self-esteem. In fact, this sense of a communal role even helps us to cope with our mortality,” Oakes Mueller said. “In other words, even though I will die, this worldview — this larger meaning or collective goal — will transcend my own death.”

Psychologists who study this phenomenon, called Terror Management Theory (TMT), suggest that, although we recognize we will someday die, by grasping onto a transcendent sense of meaning we can in some way undermine death — surviving via the continued existence of our ideals, values, and beliefs. Therefore, when our values are attacked, we subconsciously view this as a barrage on our lasting survival, and the body responds accordingly. Hence, benign conversations can quickly devolve into acidic arguments.

“According to TMT, there are four ways in which we respond to what we perceive to be an attack,” Oakes Mueller clarified. “The first is to derogate the other; the second to assimilate or convert the other into our worldview; the third to attempt to accommodate the other by grafting certain ideas of their worldview onto ours; and if none of the other three work, the final human tendency is to annihilate the other.”

In this way, our unchecked defensiveness poses an obstacle to deep listening, especially to those who are different from us. However, although we naturally tend to listen with a self-protective ear, we are not merely “reptiles,” so to speak. If we become aware of our tendency to respond in this way, especially when conversing with others, we can override such responses by turning to our capacity for empathy, reason, and compassion.

COMPASSION: EMPATHY VS. REASON

World leaders, religious preachers, renowned writers, and musicians have extolled empathy as the way forward for humanity to create a more just society. As Christians, we have the example of Jesus and Scripture, which points to his being “moved with compassion” (Mark 6:34) and relieving the suffering of others. Empathy is valuable because it cues an emotional response within a person that can lead to compassionate action. However, empathy alone may not result in compassion — it can actually lead to its opposite. Instead, it’s the way we respond to our capacity for empathy that is critical.

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, published a book in 2016 called Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. The book ventures an interesting premise: empathy, save for its usefulness in personal relationships and the appreciation of art and entertainment, does little to serve humanity. In fact, he even goes on to state that in many cases, being empathetic can lead to immorality.

It’s critical to first delineate what Bloom means by empathy, as there are multiple definitions. As he defines it in the book, empathy is the “act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” This means when someone hurts a finger or is heartbroken, you don’t merely feel bad for the person, you actually feel to a lesser degree what that person feels: a dull throbbing in your index finger or a knot in your chest.

Bloom believes compassionate actions should not be dictated solely by feelings, but rather an objective, slightly removed application of moral reasoning.

Oakes Mueller specializes in moral psychology, and he is well versed in the long debate regarding the value of empathy and reason in moral choices. He agrees with Bloom — to a degree. Oakes Mueller cited a study by social psychologist Daniel Batson, in which two groups of participants were asked to read a letter from a little girl on a donor waitlist. One group was instructed to try to understand the fears and hopes of the little girl, increasing their level of empathy for her.

Empathy remains an integral piece of our humanity and personal relationships, but, as Oakes Mueller agrees, it still needs to be checked by moral reasoning when it threatens to bias us toward our in-group.

The other group was instructed to remain “objective.” After they read the letter, both groups were given the opportunity to move the girl up on the waitlist. Participants in the empathy group were much more likely than their “objective” peers to move her up on the list. Afterward, when participants in the first group were asked if this was the right decision, they conceded it wasn’t: moving her up on the waitlist wasn’t fair to the children ahead of her, some of whom may have been in greater need of medical help.

However, Oakes Mueller challenges Bloom’s acknowledgement that empathy only serves us in a limited capacity. “According to Bloom, empathy may be beneficial in the ‘limited circumstances’ of personal relationships, but tends to undermine the rest of our moral life, in which objectivity is necessary,” Oakes Mueller said. “But I would actually say that, if you consider all our morally relevant interactions, personal relationships constitute the majority of what we’re doing on any given day. So I think his exception is really the norm. We are relational creatures, and our capacity for empathy is critical for helping us to love the other.”

Empathy remains an integral piece of our humanity and personal relationships, but, as Oakes Mueller agrees, it still needs to be checked by moral reasoning when it threatens to bias us toward our in-group. Otherwise, it’s merely an emotional response that can lead to immoral actions. Like our primal tendencies to protect ourselves, it’s how we respond to our emotions — to empathic feelings — that matters. Empathizing with a conversational partner serves to make the other feel valued and heard. We feel less threatened when someone conveys an understanding of what we’re saying — of our felt experiences — and this aids in forming constructive dialogue. But such empathy can sometimes amplify our biases toward outgroup members, increasing our natural tendency toward anger or apathy regarding the “other,” and thereby abandoning our moral reasoning. This is why untethered empathy isn’t the cure-all some claim, but rather serves as a valuable component of compassionate listening that must be tempered by reason.

CREATING SPACES FOR COMPASSIONATE LISTENING

For a university like PLNU, the coalescing of empathy and reason in order to remain open to the expression of diverse points of view is of great importance, something that has recently been top of mind within the higher education space at large. College campuses like the University of California, Berkeley; Auburn University; and Middlebury College have witnessed protests fused with violence. A 2017 Inside Higher Ed article, “Free Speech, Safety and the Constitution,” cited that “security issues have grown more complex at colleges as campus protests in some cases have devolved into preventing people from speaking and, in few cases, to violence … such conflicts on college campuses will continue.”

Dr. Kevin Modesto, chair of the PLNU Department of Sociology and Social Work, has researched issues related to the role of religion in social interventions and racial reconciliation. He affirmed the need for an institution like PLNU to be a model of openness and listening.

“As an institution of higher learning, hopefully we are having those vigorous debates, and having them collectively,” he said, emphasizing that such debates have to be grounded in love and unconditional respect. He warns that we should not descend into violence as a proper response to those with contrary views. In some sense, violence can be the result of unmitigated feelings of justice or anger that are not bridled by moral reasoning.

Dr. Sam Powell, PLNU professor of philosophy and religion, has participated in the university’s mission of providing a Christian liberal arts education since 1986. He agrees with the specific role of PLNU as a place to engage multiple perspectives.

“A liberal arts university is designed to get people to look at things from above, to try to get outside of their own presuppositions,” he said.

Powell continued with an example to illuminate the problem of closing ourselves off.

“There are a number of Christians who, when they hear the word ‘Muslim,’ immediately take the entire Muslim world and put it into one box. They’ve already supplied all the important features of that box. And this is mainly because they don’t know any Muslims: they’ve never traveled, don’t read anything, review only one news source. In my ideal world, Christians should be the opposite of that.”

Dr. Jamie Gates, PLNU professor of sociology and director of the Center for Justice & Reconciliation, has persistently modeled creating spaces for dialogue and listening. He recently had a conversation with border patrol member Rodney Scott on “The Calling” podcast show by Christianity Today. Gates and Scott, both Nazarenes and friends, harbor conflicting views on immigration and international borders.

“We don’t agree on the relationship between the church and the state, and we don’t agree on the ways Christians can and should engage around these things,” said Gates. “But because we are first brothers in Christ, and we work on our friendship, it helps us to not demonize one another or others with similar positions.”

Gates doesn’t shy away from this exchange, and not just because it presupposes a respect for Rodney as a human being, but because of the importance of challenging contrary ideas without conceding to them.

“It’s not just about generically finding a bridge with somebody who disagrees with you, and assuming that the opposite side is equally valid,” Gates said. “Because I do think there’s a prophetic role to play as Christians, to raise consciousness and the perception of people who are being harmed, oppressed, enslaved.”

This is what makes creating spaces to listen to others so difficult. In one sense, we’re called to reach out and form relationships and dialogue despite the threat it can present to us and our worldviews, but this doesn’t mean we can’t challenge those we listen to when we believe their values or perspectives are untrue. True hospitality is not capitulation.

“AND YET”: THE IMPOSSIBLE CALL TO BE HOSPITABLE

Hospitality in the biblical sense isn’t the regaling of friends at an elegant dinner party, but the radical opening up of ourselves to the other. In the Gospel, Jesus responds to an expert of the law’s question about the definition of “neighbor” with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, it’s the foreign Samaritan — not the priest or Levite — who is neighbor to the beaten victim by proffering radical hospitality.

According to Heather Ross, PLNU associate professor of philosophy, being hospitable is paradoxical. She points to two prominent philosophers to shed light on the paradox of hospitality: the philosopher Jacques Derrida, known for his practice of deconstruction, and the Christian existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard.

They respond to him with hospitality — and in doing so they are blessed with the presence of God.

Derrida understood that when people are in need of hospitality — in the form of food, shelter, companionship, etc. — they have this need because they have already been excluded through the creation of property, laws, and borders. Yet, it is by having resources of property like food and shelter that one is then able to offer hospitality to the one in need. How can I be hospitable to someone if I don’t have a “place” over which I have rightful ownership and can open up to the other? Yet, by giving one power over the other, this “stranger,” sadly, remains powerless and excluded. In other words, in order to be hospitable there will be those who are excluded, which undermines our being unconditionally hospitable to all.

This is quite abstract, and not to mention a gross oversimplification of Derrida’s explication of hospitality’s paradoxical nature, but the point remains that to be hospitable in the way God asks of us seems an impossibility. This resonates with Kierkegaard’s declaration that what God asks us to do — to be hospitable — is an impossible command.

“As followers of Christ, we are commanded to be like God. This means to love as God loves, which we cannot do,” Ross said.

Ross, like Kierkegaard, isn’t advocating for a hopeless shrug and that we stop striving to love others. On the contrary, it’s precisely because we can’t love as God commands that we have no choice but to call out to God in prayer to do the impossible.

“This is why we are in radical need of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and power, because we can’t do it alone. This makes us radically reliant on God,” Ross explained. “With Kierkegaard there is this glorious little phrase, ‘and yet.’ It’s impossible for me to be hospitable to the other in the way that I’m called, ‘and yet,’ I do it anyways. That’s what I think prayer is.”

Although it’s never easy — and we will fail along the way — we can strive through humility, prayer, and faith to be hospitable by better listening to our neighbor in love. After turning to God, we can then begin the difficult but noble work of intentionally listening to others through practice.

Kelly Bennett Heyd (06), a PLNU alumna and journalist working in Hamilton, Canada, shared how we can practically go about listening well. When interviewing others for a story, she brings to the table her own understanding of a given situation while staying open to the viewpoints and experiences others share with her.

“As a reporter, I’m always asking those I interview, ‘Can you tell me a story about a time this happened to you?’ And then, ‘How does that illustrate the thing you believe now about whatever it is?’”

Whether it’s someone’s impassioned opinion about bike lanes, immigration, or the existence of God, asking another to tell a story implicitly affords dignity and respect. Bennett Heyd strives to allow others’ narratives to reveal who they are and what they think as opposed to her own presuppositions or natural tendency to interpret according to her own worldview.

Modesto agrees that, although we can never fully suspend our prescriptive filters, we can strive to do this as much as possible in order to be more hospitable.

“If we want to learn to have conversations, to listen, we have to come in with a willingness to suspend judgment,” Modesto said. “We need to stop interpreting for somebody else and allow them to clarify who they are.”

Modesto calls to mind the disciples walking with a stranger they didn’t realize was the risen Christ in the Gospels. When they see this stranger intends to journey on, they plead with him to stay. They respond to him with hospitality — and in doing so they are blessed with the presence of God.

The call to intentionally listen to others remains a challenge, perhaps accounting for why respectful dialogue is not as common as we would like these days. Still, by appealing to our God-given gifts of empathy and reason and ultimately relying on God’s grace, we can build bridges of community with our dialogue. As Christ showed us through his life and death, we do not need to be afraid of anything, including the opening up of ourselves in radical hospitality to those who seem threatening. And like those two weary disciples on the road to Emmaus, by opening our ears, minds, and hearts to the neighbor across from us, we might just experience the risen Christ. VP

BY CHRISTOPHER HAZELL

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