The Common Good

What If We Listened?

“The less engaged people are, the more they tend to criticize. The more engaged people are, they have far less time [and] energy with which to criticize.”

Yuriy Rudyy/Shutterstock
How about if we put down our dukes and listen? Yuriy Rudyy/Shutterstock

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She might as well have completed the above statement with the dismissive wave I heard in her voice. But she didn’t.

She’s a pastor’s wife. Her bread and butter (and heart and soul) are wrapped up in the local church. I have been there. Perhaps the mile I walked in those shoes helps me understand the sentiment. And I think there is a place for tempering unjust criticism from sources that seem negatively biased. That protects people, sure.

But I can’t let it go at that.

Because there’s something about these words that troubles me, and I think I get closest to identifying it in the dismissive waves we all give — whether by action or just by tone. When a person or an organization wants to ignore or silence another source, it is much easier to do when that other source wears a label. In this case, it’s “criticizers” or the “less engaged.” In other places, it’s feminist, millennial, fundamentalist, blue-collar, edu-crat, conservative, liberal, and on and on. We label them — pshhhht (insert dismissive wave here) — and then move on undaunted.

And it goes both ways. Just as many times as I have heard pastor’s wives dismiss, I have heard unchurched Christians dismiss. I’m not taking issue with one side or the other, I think the problem lies in the label —slapping something (or better, someone) with an -ism so that we don’t have to really see them anymore. These categorizations don’t unite; they divide. They remind us of what we’ve got against each other and give permission to ignore the needs (whether stated or implied) of those who would champion a perspective different from our own. Labels reduce the complexity of cognitive process and emotional experience and everything that makes us sons and daughters of God down to a personal conclusion about a singular matter. They dehumanize.

Earlier this year, several of my friends were in a hot debate about feminism. I sat on the outskirts and watched. And more than anything, the truth that I saw through all the insensitivity and injury was that each of these people has a story that they want to share. These stories color their conclusions. The ones who were anti-feminist weren’t in that camp because they only “believed it to be right” — they had experiences that confirmed their beliefs. And the ones who were outspokenly pro-feminism had other stories — ones that would curl your hair with the injustice done.

Each of us has a unique perspective. A window. A lens. This is shaped in large part (although not exclusively) by our experiences. To nullify someone’s personal take on truth is disturbingly close to complete disregard of the sacredness of their story. People think the way they do — are convinced of the perspective they hold — for a reason. Just because you (or I) haven’t drawn the same conclusion doesn’t mean that our experience is any more valid than theirs.

And here’s the truth we often forget: By listening to someone’s subjective experience, you are not agreeing with their conclusion or the practical outworking of how that conclusion puts shoes on and walks around in their skin. You can listen to them while maintaining your own belief. You can show respect to your story and the opinions that flow from it without being unloving to your neighbor. Really, you can. Crazier things have happened.

So here it is. Where the rubber meets the road. I want to suggest something to the passionate pastor’s wives and the smiling Sunday school teachers, to the scared and scarred “criticizers” who sit at home on Sunday morning and stew, to the despondent and the discouraged and the disheartened in both camps, to the prodigals and the elder brothers.

How about if we put down our dukes and listen? How about if we refrain from seeing differences as a threat — even if opinions are delivered in a somewhat threatening way — and instead seek to see stories?

I don’t know any criticizers of the church (some of whom are “less engaged,” yes) who do not have a story to share. Just think of the healing that could come if instead of statements like the one above being tossed around for the mindless masses to consume and amen and retweet, we would listen. Similarly, I don’t know anyone who finds life and grace and peace and a sense of home in their spiritual community who doesn’t have a story of how this transaction has bettered their life and continues to be an uplifting influence.

We need these stories. We all do.

Perhaps if we valued our brothers and sisters’ lives for what they are — narratives being scripted for the whole of humankind instead of relegated to one side or another of an argument — we could unplug our ears, soften our hearts, close our mouths, and grow in compassion. Perhaps we would, in the process, find God in unexpected places. God likes to show up there.

Kelli Woodford lives in the Midwest, surrounded by cornfields and love, with her husband and seven blue-eyed children. There isn’t much she loves more than engaging conversations and crackling firesides. Especially combining the two. Kelli writes with some regularity at her personal blog and is a respected contributor for several online magazines, as well. Two published books also bear her stories, Mom in the Mirror and  Not Afraid (a Civitas Press community project, edited by Alise Wright).

Photo: Yuriy Rudyy/Shutterstock
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