Being attentive to others


Being attentive is a big deal. At countless weddings, funerals and services held at nursing homes I am told I am “down to earth” or “positive” or “easy to relate to”. I confess I have no idea what people are talking about. People who know me well tell me I am odd, that my take on reality is unique to me, that I can be quite critical of the way things are and my friends are stunned I get away with these critiques without much fallout. I have been known to preach at weddings about how the glitch and show of these gatherings overshadow the deeper meaning of reaching out to our more marginal fellow citizens. I even ask the couple and their parents whether they will be going out to the streets to invite people to the wedding, filling any no-shows at the reception dinner (Luke 14).

At funerals I tell people that what will be remembered is not the music, the words (mine) or the glowing praise for the deceased but rather those who showed up, at the service, at their homes, after the funeral is over. I make fun of sympathy cards (the images of heaven look like Freedom 55 or Florida tourist ads). At nursing homes I remind people the hymns they sing appear to “God’s greatest hits) and old time religion and nostalgia is not what makes us happy.

Yet the comments often come, “down to earth”, “positive” and “easy to relate to”. I usually explain the relationship of the early church to the Roman Empire and how it was the Empire who killed Jesus, a political traitor and a threat to the state. I often explore the way Jean Vanier reveals that brokenness is a means to experience grace and redemption, not to mention new life. And I routinely reference Rodney Stark’s book “The Rise of Christianity” as an explanation for how the early church grew in spite of the opposition to it by the Roman Empire. None of this sounds to me like “down to earth” or “positive” or “easy to relate to”.

How do I make sense of all these seeming contradictions? Strangely despite being an extrovert’s extrovert, in spite of being loud and at times an attention seeker, I really do listen to what others tell me about themselves. A colleague once dismissively asked me “how is it that you find visiting parishioners so interesting when it is so clearly NOT?” My response then and now is simple, I really do find people fascinating, interesting and I am keen to know what makes people tick.

My take is that most people are inherently good and much more capable and clever than me. This is not false modesty. Again the people who know me best understand I really don’t know a much about many things and I am severely limited in what I can do. Most people I meet are far more able and knowledgeable than me. It’s really not even close. But what shocks me is how little curiosity people have about each other. It’s as if people only want to know about the other what confirms their own opinions and interests. This stuns me. I think this lack of curiosity about others makes the effort to speak at a funeral or a wedding or at a nursing home an exercise in trying to tell an audience what they should know, what they should be doing. The “should” is grounded either in an institution (the church) or a theory of life (read self-help books) or just based on one’s own personal experience.

Some people are such talented speakers they can pull this off. But most can’t, it’s hard to stand in front of people you don’t know and don’t understand and tell them something they will find interesting. But here’s the thing, if you are attentive to others, listen to who they are (not just how they resemble you or your theory), how others make sense of this complex and confusing world, you can pull out of these conversations little gems that hold the essence of the other. You can tell an audience at a funeral or a wedding something about the one or ones being celebrated something s/he or they believed and lived to their core. At a nursing home you can tell the residents (and their families), the staff, the volunteers, something about the experience of living at such a home and what is being experienced there. People will pay attention to these observations, in large part because you are paid attention to them. Your mark of good listening is confirmed by the nodding heads and expressions on the face as you share what you have heard.

I don’t think I am “down to earth” or “positive” or “easy to approach”. I think I approach others and listen to them and am attentive to their world view. I don’t assume “they are just like me” or they need to be “just like me”. I assume everyone is truly different and has a story to tell. And I want to hear that story.

It’s not rocket science. Any can do this. It’s actually quite easy. You just have to be curious, interested and know what you think is not necessarily what others think or need to think.