Are You Listening?


by Peg Coleman

The trailer for the movie Babel opened with the words “in the beginning all parts of the world spoke one language.  Nothing they proposed was impossible. Fearing what the spirit of man could accomplish, God said let us go down and confuse their language so that they may not understand each other’s speech.”


Those of you who have seen the movie remember how the story involves four different plot lines.  The stories revolve around small groups of individuals from four different countries whose lives intersect due to circumstances that seem completely unrelated. In fact, if you didn’t watch and listen closely, the whole thing could have been very confusing. 


In the opening scene a young American couple sit opposite each other each looking as though they’d rather be anywhere else than where they are at that moment.  Furthermore it seemed they’d rather be with anyone else than each other.  What little conversation there is between them is strained and tense.  Minutes later we see them riding on a tour bus through sand filled countryside.  Suddenly the sharp sound of cracking glass breaks the silence of their tortuous journey. The wife collapses in the seat next to her husband and panic breaks out on the bus. She has been shot and needs help--now.  They stop at the first town they come to.  It’s a little village almost hidden among the hills of sand in the middle of a desert.  When they stop to find help, the biggest obstacle they face is the language barrier.  His wife is severely wounded and the husband can’t be understood. In panic he begins to shout, thinking that if he can’t get them to understand the words, he will get them to understand the urgency of the situation through his vehement, angry words. 


Throughout the movie, this theme appears over and over; the need we have to make someone—at least one person-- understand us. We begin to see that it takes a commitment on both sides -- by the one communicating as well as by the one listening -- in order for understanding to have a chance of happening. Throughout each vignette it’s apparent that where people are more interested in themselves and their own matters, the less likely -- or capable they are of understanding what someone else is trying to say.  The self absorption that we increasingly encounter in our society every day, even among close friends and family, seems ready made for trouble.  Like a ripple in the water, where miscommunication starts at a very particular, small point, it spreads outward into ever widening circles.  What begins as a misunderstanding between two people can end up in family feuds that last a lifetime. Broaden that misunderstanding outside of the family context and you have nation set against nation, each stewing in their hurt feelings and bruised emotions because everyone was listening to their own thoughts, their own arguments.  Both situations are very difficult to pull back from.  


The camera turns and we’re in Japan. This same lack of connectedness is expressed through the life of a young Japanese girl.  Through the use of increasingly extreme behavior, painful to watch, she tries to communicate to friends her intense anguish and internal suffering. There in a darkened theater, free from external distractions, it’s easy for us to see her pain, why not them?  Why are they so blind?  Could it be that they, just like we, are absorbed in their own lives?  They’re caught up with their own pains and anxieties -- distractions which act as shields to keep them from understanding someone else.  Even her closest friend, who should be the most understanding and sympathetic person in her life, taunts her about her moodiness -- either not understanding, or refusing to accept the reason for it.




To understand takes time and commitment to being “there” in that moment with that person, concentrating on what they’re sharing.   How often is this missing in our relationships and conversations?  How often are we missing the heart of what someone is trying to share because our minds are so full of our own things—full of ourselves?

The most threatening part of this whole act of communication is that is calls for us to be selfless—to put our concerns aside in order that we may focus on another. 


Working alone in an office all week and coming home to an empty house at night gives me a perfect opportunity to be disengaged from people.  Because my family is away from home on business all week, we actually spend remarkably little time together throughout the year.   Sometimes I’m alone on weekends as well, when business keeps them away.  When we finally are together, we all face a time of “re-entry”.  We’ve been on our own, concerned with our own affairs and our own thoughts, able to make decisions without any other input. Then we’re back together and the whole situation changes.  It isn’t always easy to come together. In fact it’s much easier to come to our mealtimes together and go through the motions of conversation without actually touching each other's hearts.  To actually BE there for each other involves a commitment to each other, to putting the other person first before our own plans and ideas.  Only by getting out of the way ourselves does the other person have a ghost of a chance to be heard, and more importantly, to be understood.


There is a verse in John 15:13 that goes “greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friend…” I’ve always thought that meant a person would actually die for me, or I for them—in the physical sense.  But recently it has taken on a fuller meaning; that truly listening to someone can be an expression of that verse.  By that I mean putting aside my own thoughts so my friends or family can have my full attention has the potential of being a daily expression of those words. 


The question is: am I ready to do this?  Am I willing to lay aside my own thoughts so my friend (or husband, or child) can have my real attention?  Am I willing to lay aside “my things” so they can see some of their own plans and dreams fulfilled?  Or will they meet my long suffering face and condescending attitude, both of which convey not love and understanding, but rather that I have better things to do and think about.   We encounter these situations every day.  How we respond is in our hands.


What difference would it make in the life of one other person today if we simply listened to them with our full attention?   It might mean changing our normal way of acting, it might mean trying something totally different, but would you agree it’s possible?  So, here’s one final thought: do you find yourself wishing you were better understood?  Perhaps the place to start is by listening.


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