This is my second post this week about having holy conversation, instead of just small talk, at our holiday gatherings. You can read the first post here. When we think about conversation, we usually imagine people talking. But I think that the key ingredient, especially if the topic is difficult, should always be listening.
It seems that in this cultural moment, especially, so many people are trying so hard to be heard, and yet more and more it just feels like we are talking past each other, saying things that are not received. When we disagree, we stop listening as soon as the words come out of someone else's mouth.
This is why I think that listening is a holy practice. We can listen to each other without agreeing. We can momentarily put aside our own response and reaction and just strive to fully receive what the other is offering, whether we like it or not, whether it is correct or not.
This is true even if someone is saying something that we find offensive or frightening. We can still give them the gift of our attention, still see them as a fellow child of God.
This is the key to listening. I may not want to hear what you are saying, but I do need to acknowledge and respect that you are my neighbor.
And this is not really optional. As we are seeing in the world today, there is only so far we can push others away. We are still, ultimately, in relationship, in a place where our actions have consequences for one another. Continuing to refuse to respect others' personhood only escalates our division and alienation.
Again, we do not have to agree with what another is saying. We can absolutely oppose what we feel is wrong. But we cannot dehumanized one another, and to remember this, we can practice looking them in the eye, calming our breath, clearing our mind of what we want to say, and just listening.
Underneath the words, even hurtful ones, we might also hear our neighbor saying, 'I am angry', 'I am afraid', 'I feel alone'. These might be things we share in common.
And so, when we are close, when we are sharing conversation at holiday gatherings, at festive meals, we have the chance to practice really listening to those we love.
We all know, whatever topic we have agreed to avoid, will eventually come up, even indirectly. Or that one person will start in on that thing they always say. Or something will go wrong and it will be the fault of that particular group of people, according to some.
Instead of reacting, instead of ignoring, we can decide to be curious about the opinions of our neighbors holding them.
'How exactly does that work, grandma?' 'Where did you read that, Milton?' 'I would like to know more about that, dear.'