LISTENING DEEPLY IN LOVE
Feb. 10, 2019. PUUF, Rev. Kit Ketcham
Story from another life: When I was a guidance counselor in Colorado working with young adolescents, one of my concerns was encouraging students to use appropriate help for the problems they faced as they moved from childhood through the teenage years and into young adulthood.
Early adolescence can be fraught with conflict with adults, particularly parents, and often young teens are unwilling or too shy to tell a teacher or counselor about the difficult realities they face.
Sometimes these are commonplace realities---the need to separate from parents and become one’s own person rather than a parental clone; the concerns about “am I normal?” as childish bodies change and others’ perceptions of those bodies seem a little scary or confusing; the many choices a teen must face as they think about further education, vocational possibilities, the age-old question of “who am I and what am I doing here?”.
And sometimes those realities are too big to handle alone: alcoholic parents, domestic violence, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts. Many times youth are uncomfortable telling adults about these problems and more comfortable telling a friend, so peer counseling programs were a popular approach in many schools.
Peer counseling curricula had been available in our local high schools for several years when my friend Carolee, who taught health education (aka sex ed), she and I decided to write a peer counseling curriculum for our older junior high students, 9th graders, who at that time in our district had not been absorbed into the high school.
Peer counselors, if you are unfamiliar with that concept, are not professional counselors; they are, instead, peers of the group they hope to reach out to. In our case, we were hoping to train our 14 and 15 year olds to listen helpfully to other students, to offer assistance as appropriate and to bring them to adult counselors or parents if the situation warranted it.
Carolee and I decided, once we got our administration’s go-ahead, to choose a group of about 15-20 9th graders from applications submitted at spring registration time. We interviewed them and looked for students with leadership potential, students who were admired and respected by other kids, not necessarily the most popular kids, the most goody-goody kids, or the most academically oriented kids. We admitted some kids that our principal took a dim view of.
But we wanted a diverse group, kids from all peer groups in the school, even the edgy ones thought of in those days as the freaks or the stoners or the skaters. We were full of optimism, even though we knew we were taking on a huge and somewhat risky challenge.
Now, if you think about it, adults have a lot of power over kids. And adults do a lot of telling kids what to do. We do it because we’re scared for them, we’re a little scared of them, we’re a little scared about what the world will be like when we’ve aged and they are running things. And we have a huge responsibility to guide them on worthy paths. So we tell them what to do----a lot.
And when kids reach adolescence, they often begin to respond negatively to our efforts because they are beginning to be aware of their own power to say no, to choose a different path.
Sometimes they start doing badly in school. Sometimes they get rowdy. Sometimes they act out in self-destructive ways. Sometimes they gang up---against us. Sometimes they close down and refuse to talk to adults or to acknowledge any responsibility for their actions. Sometimes they are compliant on the surface and go underground with their efforts to feel independent and different from their parents. All these are teenage power plays!
Many of those adults who have learned how to get along well with teens and older youth have discovered that one key is to recognize the power they are coming to have and to find ways to address that power with love.
In our peer counseling program one year we had quite a motley crew. Actually, we did every year, but this was a special group. Not only did we have a somewhat more racially and academically diverse group, we had several young people about whom our principal just shook his head.
“I don’t know what you are thinking, taking on Jamie so-and-so” he said. “That kid isn’t going to do anything but end up in a gang. Sure, he’s irresistible to the girls and can talk teachers into anything, but with his background? Good luck.”
But we took Jamie on just because of who he was. Jamie was going to be a powerful young man someday and we hoped to be able to shape the ways he used his power. And Jamie loved being selected as a peer counselor, learning to listen between the lines, make responsible decisions about what he heard, and be seen as a student leader. Jamie was a good peer counselor---eventually.
Because there was that time, early in the semester, when Jamie, goofing around in the hall before class, chased a girl he liked down the hall and into a classroom.
When Miss Shipley, the math teacher, shouted at him, “Jamie, what in the name of heaven are you doing?”, he called back, as he cornered this giggling girl, “I’m peer counseling her!”
That became, shall we say, a teachable moment for Jamie. The principal threatened to pull him out of the class and make him sit in study hall. But we intervened and kept him in class, and Jamie began to blossom. He never became an angel, but he did become a more responsible young man.
When I saw the effect our peer counseling class, with its strategies of teaching kids to listen deeply to their friends, to know when to alert an adult about a problem, to be able to mediate a quarrel between students, when I saw the effect this had on our students’ lives, I became passionate about the value of giving kids the tools to address the problems in their lives and when friends asked for help.
Why is this coming to mind just now? Well, at our most recent Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition meeting, I realized that a lot of what we do in that group is talk in generalities about what we NEED to do, kind of the way I used to hear adults talk to kids about they OUGHT to do, rather than teaching them some skills to help them do it.
“You need to listen to me!” we say. “You need to think about the responsible thing to do! You need to tell an adult about that problem! You need to stay away from those kids!”
I love belonging to our Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition, but I could tell that day that we were doing the same thing in our group as adults often do when they are concerned about kids---talk about what we NEED to do, rather than teaching the skills needed to do it. We assume that we all know these skills.
So another member of the Coalition, Anne Mabee, a counselor at CCC, and I decided that we would offer to the Coalition a workshop on deep listening skills.
Our hope is that once the members of our Coalition feel comfortable listening deeply, they will see the value of defusing conflicts by listening deeply to those with whom we are in conflict, whether adults who disagree with us about political or religious matters or individuals who are causing problems or a relative who disapproves of us for some reason. You can think of others, surely!
In a way, I’m thinking of the folks in our Diversity Coalition as potential peer counselors, people who have the skills to listen deeply, ask questions that will invite openness on the other person’s part, promote understanding between the two of them, and do a little bit to work out conflict and angry points of view.
All these folks are already community leaders, to some extent, representing divergent racial groups, sexual minorities, disabled, city officials, longtime activists, and retirees active in local affairs. They need to be able to listen effectively because this ability is a mighty tool in solving problems.
The thing is, most of us know at least some of the skills required to be an effective listener---but we often fall into old patterns and miss the boat. Those of us who have parented teenagers know how easy it is!
What is an effective listener? How do we know when someone is really listening to us and really hearing what we say? (cong.resp).
What’s the flip side, when you can tell when they’re not really listening?
What do you already know and use when you are listening to someone confide in you? (cong.resp)
Here’s what I think, after an email conversation I recently had about the value of listening deeply with love:
I think listening deeply with love is the essence of our faith, Unitarian Universalism, for with listening deeply comes understanding and a kind of love that is universal rather than selective.
We are usually selective with the kind of familiar love we experience---for children, friends, spouses and partners, other family members, animals, mountains, oceans, the most important and valued things in our lives.
What we often don’t allow ourselves to experience is that universal love that flows through the universe, that goes beyond physical attraction or blood lines or any of the numberless things that cause us to feel familiar love.
Universal love can come to us when we listen deeply for understanding of another person, when we learn what moves that person, when we get a glimpse of the humanity beneath the outward appearance, when we can see that person as they truly are, without the overlay of our own biases.
The late Thurgood Marshall, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, once said “in recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute”.
In other words, when we recognize in others the humanity that we ourselves are part of, we recognize that, though we both are imperfect, we are both human and that is a good thing, a point to start from in finding the universal love available in it.
Because to be human is to hold within us all the promise and all the threat of the human condition, and each of us makes the choices that shape our character. Whether we fulfill our promise or squander it, whether we succumb to the influence of negative powers or resist those powers with all our being, we are human beings together in a universe where the only saving grace is love, not just familiar love, but universal love, the love that, like gravity, shapes our daily living.
Gravity affects all of us, without exception. You may remember my telling you that when I was in AlAnon and had to find a Higher Power, something that was stronger than I was, I chose gravity because it affected my entire life like nothing else does. I could not exist easily without it.
Love is the same. It is stronger than we are, it affects our entire lives, we cannot easily exist without it. I like to think that Gravity and Love share a common quality—they both are powers of attraction. Love draws us to one another in powerful ways; Gravity draws us all to the earth, in its own irresistible way.
A scientist might not consider the two forces the same thing, but I like the idea that Love and Gravity are two ways of saying much the same thing: attraction is a good and essential thing, unless it is perverted into greed, lust, envy, egotism or any of the so-called seven deadly sins that plague humankind.
We often succumb to perverted love again and again, as we neglect to consider its effects on ourselves, each other, and on our planet Earth, just as we neglect to pay close enough attention to gravity’s power when we take chances with our lives.
Finding the courage to resist perverted human love may lead us down the unfamiliar path of learning how human love can be perverted and used to harm. Listening deeply with love can be a corrective to perverted love, which is often a result of not having received adequate healthy love as a child.
Listening deeply is the mainstay of many therapeutic methods. When we listen deeply with love, we find greater understanding of the human being who does not know how to love in a healthy way and in return, that sad human being receives some healing mercies from our willingness and desire to understand.
Listening deeply with love is one mainstay of our Seven Principles of UUism, which states that “we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
That principle is a call to live out our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, for listening deeply with love is how we learn to accept one another, even in our mutual imperfections, and gives us the wisdom to encourage spiritual growth in ourselves, each other, and in our congregations.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: As Monica extinguishes our chalice, let’s pause for our benediction.
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, aware of the gift we give ourselves, another person, and by extension, the larger community when we commit to listening deeply in order to understand another person. May we give that gift freely, knowing that we are taking one small step toward healing a broken world.
Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.