If 2014 was anything at all, it was the year that nobody listened.
Senate Torture Report and CIA Reply
Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the 'Other America'
Supreme Court Rejects Contraceptives Mandate for Some Corporations
Scare-mongering about Ebola is not such a great idea
Transgender Teen: 'My death needs to mean something'
Jane Kleeb vs. the Keystone Pipeline
Obama's Speech on Drone Policy
Wide Partisan Differences Over the Issues That Matter in 2014
People were screaming, begging at the top of their lungs and many of us--enough of us--just could not hear each other. We threw up our hands and cried, "It's not my problem! It's not my fault!" As if those two things are synonymous. The outrage spiraled on and on, and still nothing changed. We ended the year, as a nation, despondent and confused.
But it's a new year. It's a new chance to hear.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "We are afraid to care too much, for fear the other person does not care at all."
Most of us get pretty defensive when someone asks us care about something. How many times have I walked past an earnest young woman on a street corner with a clipboard, begging for donations? How many times have I ripped up and thrown out town meeting notices and information from charity organizations? I did not do the ice bucket challenge for ALS because I felt like I was being forced to participate. Like I was being forced to care. It made me frustrated and defensive.
I've realized something pretty important:
When I feel really defensive about something, it is time to stop and reevaluate. Not because I'm wrong, necessarily, but because I have stopped listening.
I am so often guilty of this. There are some issues (reproductive rights, LGBT rights, systemic racism) that will switch my ears off quickly, almost reflexively. It's not because I am a stubborn person, although I am, or because I don't want to talk about it. It is because these issues are personal to me. They touch me very deeply, and I am afraid to have them challenged. I am afraid--terrified, really--that the things you say will hurt me. I don't want you to hurt me personally when you think you're talking about the impersonal "them."
This is natural, but it's also dangerous. It's an impulse I have to fight. Turning off our ability to listen stops the conversation in its tracks. You can't influence someone's deeply entrenched beliefs by monologuing at them. You can't stretch or learn or grow without pushing past your own fear and vulnerability. None of us can.
You can survive being hurt. You cannot let that stop you.
Jiddu Krishnamurti said, "What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it."
When we talk about "facing our fears," we often forget that most fears have human faces.
Do you know the single biggest indicator in whether a person is for or against gay marriage? Whether the person you're asking actually knows a homosexual person. If we know gay or lesbian people personally, if we confront the living face of that fear, then we find we are no longer afraid. We find that we cannot deny rights to our friends.
Whether you agree with marriage equality or not, the point is that most of the things that really scare us are other people. People we don't understand. People we think might hurt us, or disenfranchise us, or take something away from us. We're afraid of terrorists and rapists and the mentally ill, and so we fight to carry a concealed weapon and shoot it when we feel threatened. We're afraid that people will start wantonly killing babies, and so we oppose abortion and access to birth control. We're afraid of being robbed or looted, and so we gate our communities and walk past the homeless without offering our help.
When we surround ourselves with those who agree with us--who look and act and sound and vote like us--we convince ourselves that everyone agrees with us. It makes us feel safe, but it isn't the truth. Almost no issue in the USA receives more than 60% support, according to polls. 60% is considered quite high. To believe that "everyone" agrees on any particular topic is a logical fallacy, and it's a dangerous way to live. Will you be comfortable if you live this lie? Perhaps. Probably. But you will also be ignorant and fearful.
Jack Canfield says, "Everything you want is on the other side of fear."
Turn your ears back on. Please.
I know it's hard. It's scary, and your heart will hurt sometimes. Sometimes, you'll get angry enough to see red. Sometimes, you'll be sad enough to cry. But none of those things--hurt, anger, sadness--will stop you from living your life. We can live with hurt in our hearts. We can be brave enough to overcome sadness. We cannot allow the fear of pain to make us weak.
Empathy takes practice. It is a choice we must make every day.
Talking past each other, forgetting how to listen... That will cause damage we cannot undo. It already has. We shouldn't have to scream to get our voices heard. We should be listening to each other. We should be close enough to look one another in the eye.
That's my paradise, anyway. That's my dream for 2015.
This is the year I turn my ears back on. Join me?