My friend Alice (see “Mind the Gap!” on this blog) mentioned that she’d hosted a group of spiritual people at her home the other night, and the discussion had turned to listening…really listening. “We have to learn to be vulnerable in both our talking and our listening,” one man astutely observed.

Sometimes I think I’m too vulnerable in my listening. I soak up other people’s worries, panic, stress and grief like a sponge. This causes me to make errors in judgment: I am not objective enough to analyze what was said and really understand it. Sometimes it takes days for me to understand what was really being communicated, underneath the distorting blanket of emotion. To borrow a phrase from The Little Prince, I see the hat, not the boa constrictor swallowing the elephant. Maybe I’m just slow that way.

Or is it the other way around? Am I not vulnerable enough in my listening to hear the truth, the single caesura in the parade of iambs and trochees? Is this a skill I can even learn given my tin ear?

I am agonizing over a stupid thing I did recently, a blunder that directly resulted from my failure to hear, really hear, what was being said. Do I get any points for having good intentions? Not if I believe the axiom that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and I do. And if good intentions don’t count, how is a Failure any different from a Sinner? It’s all very murky, leaving little light to guide me out of my wallow of self-castigation.

I remember back in grade school, we had a unit in Reading class all about listening skills. This consisted of hearing a story and correctly identifying its details afterwards. I was very good at this, perhaps because these stories (and the attendant answers) were uncolored by emotion. Which brings me back to my central question: If I can’t hear through the fog of feeling, what’s wrong with me? And how do I fix it?

God only knows.