Listen! This is a noisy world. You may have heard of the story of a dispute in the student union of one university. It seems "the presence of a juke box...disrupted conversation. Conversationalists petitioned for removal of the offending machine. Music lovers petitioned to keep it, arguing that it was a very democratic machine—if you do not like what you hear you can vote with your quarters to hear something else. But the conversationalists replied that what they wanted to hear, silence, was not among the options offered. The ingenious resolution was to include a three-minute silent disk among the records."

We are a verbal group. We are all good at talking. We string endless numbers of words together. By my own calculations, I have probably uttered well over ten million words from the pulpit over the past forty-five years, and that is a conservative estimate. Does the quality of the message vary in inverse proportion to the number of words uttered?

Listening, the lost art, the gentle art. In my wiser moments I know that "one-half of language is to listen." While I spend much of my time talking, I also do a fair amount of listening. It is hard to say which is of greater value. I do know that greater discipline is required to listen than to talk. To speak comes naturally for most of us; it is our default mode. We speak at the drop of a hint that there is someone who will listen.

Charles Townsend Copeland, former beloved professor of English at Harvard, used two cramped and inconvenient rooms on the top floor of Hollis Hall. He resisted all attempts to move him to more spacious accommodations, maintaining that the top floor suited him perfectly. "It's the only place in Cambridge where God alone is above me. He's busy—but He's quiet."

I read of one psychoanalyst who told "the story of a patient whom he saw three times per week over a period of a year. At every session, the patient lay down upon the couch and plunged into free association. At the end of the year, the man pronounced himself cured, and proffered his grateful thanks. The analyst declared that, during the whole of this period, he had offered no interpretations whatever."

"The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen Buddhism entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence.

"On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: 'Fix those lamps.'

"The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. 'We are not supposed to say a word,' he remarked.

"'You two are stupid. Why did you talk?' asked the third.

'"I am the only one who has not talked,' concluded the fourth pupil.

"Life speaks to be heard," says the poet. "Sound is a living thing." There is no sound, no language, no music, without the listening ear. Without silence between notes, there would be no music.

In the Quaker tradition we have "liturgical silence" in which one listens to the spirit before one speaks.

However, as G.B. Shaw once said about the original form of Quaker worship, "I believe in the discipline of silence and could talk for hours about it."

I know what discipline this requires, for even when I am listening to another, I am often distracted, thinking ahead to what brilliant thing I am going to say in response.

Listening, then, has a spiritual dimension. It suggests that I am not the center of the cosmos, but rather one source of words among others. It implies that I have no monopoly on wisdom, that true wisdom may be found in listening.

Listen! Listen to what others have to say.
There is wisdom in all you meet.
Listen to the sounds of nature.
It speaks and sings and makes music
For those who pay attention.
Listen! Listen to the impulses of your spirit.
Take time to hear your inner yearnings,
That still, small voice drowned in the raucous shout.
Listen! This is a noisy world.
Perhaps, this year, we will listen.


Source: Original, first published September 30, 2000.


About the Author

  • The Rev. Dr. Richard S. Gilbert retired in 2005 after serving 44 years in the Unitarian Universalist ministry in Cleveland, Ohio, Golden, Colorado, Ithaca, New York, and for 32 years at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. He received an M.Div. from St. Lawrence...

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