“The word ‘listen’ has the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” ~ Alfred Brendel
How many times have we barked the word “Listen!” in a plea to be heard, silencing the chaos that supposedly serves as conversation, but is really a soliloquy? And how many times have we delivered our own monologues with little thought of the person listening?
Austrian pianist, poet, and author, Alfred Brendel’s observation that the word ‘listen’ has the same letters as the word ‘silent’” says volumes. In order to listen we have to be silent. Not waiting our turn to talk and take centre stage but giving the rostrum to another, and actually hearing what they have to say. In silence we can hear, but the silence has to be one that not only silences the tongue but quiets the mind.
I practice listening. It is not easy. Ernest Hemmingway’s advice to “listen completely when people talk” sounds simple—but his addition that “most people never listen” is unfortunately not merely the surveillance of a curmudgeon, but the truth of a scribe. Practicing listening takes patience but it is rewarded ten-fold. I am starting to get beyond just practicing and incorporating “listening” as a something that comes naturally, something I do not have to think about, and something that adds to my body of knowledge.
As a writer, I have at my fingertips (quite literally) the ability to be heard, and that is why I write. I am not a particularly effective speaker—one liners are my speciality, but scratch the surface and you will find a tongue-tied scribbler. I have on occasion tried and failed to enter conversations—perhaps my entry into the fray is not passionate enough, loud enough, or, and this could be the whole crux of the problem, interesting enough.
Writing gives one the chance to silent conversation and finally be heard (to an extent—I realize you can always stop reading me in mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, or even after the very first sentence—but I try not to think about that). I can focus when I write about a topic—my mind is organized in such a way that saying what I mean, sharing what I know, and sharing the knowledge of others is not difficult when I put words on a page. But when I open my mouth, many times my brain shuts down—it seems to me I have a flap that opens when I write and closes when I talk. So it behooves me to be a good listener as I am not a good verbal storyteller.
Silence is also something I cherish. I have never been able to understand news writers who work in a noisy environment—the few times I have worked at the newspaper office have been enlightening but certainly not my creative best. Even when I worked as a full time reporter, I wrote my articles in a corner of my home office (also known as my dining room), sometimes with a toddler at my side—but mostly when the rest of the household was asleep or out. As I write this, my youngest son is asleep upstairs and my husband is out—there is no radio or television on, and all I hear is the reassuring hum of my refrigerator (reassuring, because if there is no hum, it is not working—and that is not conducive to writing).
Chaos reigns in all of our lives. Silence is the cure. Listening is also an antidote to chaos, because by listening, you are silencing your demons and opening yourself up to something new, something worthwhile, and something you might not have discovered with your mouth open.
Listen. Silent. They both have the same letters. Listening to silence, a/k/a meditation is another way to “get in touch with ourselves”—certainly a mantra of the 21st century. But think about it—in silence you get to listen to yourself, and though sometimes I bore myself silly—other times I figure out a new way of looking at things. A way I would not have discovered if I had not stopped to listen in silence.
I will end with this quote attributed to that sage of all wisdom, wearer of red suspenders, and really old guy, Larry King: “I’ve never learned a thing while my mouth was moving.”