Of the many things we take for granted and underestimate, the power in our capacity to listen to another without judgment or reservation is among the greatest. This is in large part because of the incredibly loud noise we create to crowd out the unwanted voices of others. From our iPhones and iPads to television and headphones, we have used technology to drown out noise from our counterparts inhabiting the world around us.
We choose to read the news headlines we agree with rather than those that challenge our narrow way of thinking. We prefer news media that appeals to our respective ideologies rather than opening our minds to different perspectives. This noise inevitably makes it impossible to hear and understand others around us. History tells us that we are merely repeating a bad habit — human indifference on a global scale.
Time and again, humanity has failed to truly grasp the power in valuing another’s voice, cry and story. Consider the countless wars fought merely because human beings could not reconcile listening to the concerns of their counterparts or constituents. The French Revolution was born out of a constituency that felt voiceless to the ear of its leader, King Louis XIV. After ignoring the cries of rising inflation, pervasive disease and inescapable poverty, King Louis XIV and his regime were violently overthrown by their unheard constituents in the single bloodiest revolution in history, amounting in the death of more than 40,000 thousand people.
Consider a massacre that claimed the lives of almost 1 million people within 100 days — the Rwandan genocide. For four grueling months, hundreds were exterminated every day because other nations would not heed the cries of Rwandan citizens until the number of deaths reached unprecedented levels.
For additional examples, look no further than Bangladesh, East Timor and Cambodia in the 1970s, Guatemala in the 1980s, Bosnia in the 1990s and most recently in Sudan. In each instance, thousands, (and in some cases hundreds of thousands), of individuals were exterminated in large part because other nations failed and in some cases, refused to listen to their cries.
The word listen is derived from the root word “hlysnan,” which means to honor by giving another unmeasured time, unreserved attention and space. Listening is our single most powerful tool to enable others to express empathy, compassion and love. Listening is key to one of the single greatest virtues of the human spirit — empathy. It is the idea that, on some level, we can consciously discern another’s state of being through solicitude — the compassionate concern for others.
I have never been more convinced that our society’s inability to listen to the concerns of others is the root cause of many of the issues we face today. Of the many who share my concern, I am pleased that two are amongst us in San Mateo County — Len and Libby Traubman.
The Traubmans have built their life’s work around creating dialogues to break ancient divisions between cultures and communities that are seemingly impossible to sever. I recently had the wondrous opportunity of joining more than 100 people at San Mateo’s Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center for the Traubmans’ most recent community dialogue — “Crossing Lines.” The title exemplifies the objective of the dialogue — crossing the divisive lines of age, culture, socioeconomic status, religion, anger, bitterness and pain within our community.
Each of us were assigned the task of engaging an individual we did not know for 30 minutes. The listeners were not allowed to ask many questions — giving the speakers space to freely express their story and experiences without interruption. I was honored to converse with the retired founder of a Redwood City Library Foundation. Within minutes, brief tears were exchanged between my partner and I as she shared her story. After our exchange, many of the participants shared their stories with the congregation. I was astonished at what little I knew about the people around me — their trials, tribulations, victories and defeats.
My takeaway from the event boils down to one simple fact: No matter how vast our differences, the more we take the initiative to listen to others, the more we realize that, in large part, we are all the same. To embrace our similarities over our differences, we must be willing to go beyond our comfort zones and cross the lines that divide us. This requires a belief that, together, vastly different individuals can unite here in San Mateo County, our nation and the world. That is the power of crossing lines.
A native of Pacifica, Jonathan Madison worked as professional policy staff for the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Financial Services, from 2011-2013. Jonathan is an attorney at the Law Offices of McGlashan & Sarrail. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.