Meet Art and Laraine Bennett. They have a one-word plan for how to change our everyday relationships and even bring world peace. It’s called listening
“How many times have I missed something important, something real — or worse, someone real — right here in the room while I zoned out, hypnotized by Facebook?”
Art and Laraine Bennett offer this question in a new book called “Tuned In: The Power of Pressing Pause and Listening” (Our Sunday Visitor, $15). Life doesn’t get much more important than listening, and it’s something we’re struggling with individually and culturally today, living lives replete with distractions.
The Bennetts have been married for 40 years and have written a number of books together on the temperaments, emotions, caregiving and faith. Art is currently president and CEO of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and was formerly the co-founder and director of Alpha Omega Clinics in Maryland and Virginia, working in mental health for more than three decades. Laraine is currently communications manager for the National Council of Catholic Women. They talk about listening and our lives today.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is listening really “the most important thing”? Always?
Laraine Bennett: Whenever Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks, I listen. He said listening is the most important thing. I trust him on this. We need to listen to each other and to God. Our attentiveness to the reality of God and our expression of love for our neighbor by truly listening are essential to fulfilling the great commandment.
Anyone who has ever scrolled through their own Facebook page knows that we simply are not listening to each other. And with the “dictatorship of noise,” as Cardinal Robert Sarah puts it, we are likely not spending much time listening to God either. And how can we love God and our neighbor, as the great commandment tells us, if we do not listen to them?
Lopez: Your title suggests hitting pause, but is there detox needed here? Do we need to step away from the machines? Or is that the hermit in me crying out?
Art Bennett: Though the metaphor of hitting pause is rather mechanical, we are hoping to convey the poverty of solely restricting ourselves to the mechanical and transactional view of dealing with God and others. When we hit the pause button, we want to restart and approach each person with a listening heart. Let’s open our hearts to a true encounter with another person, with God.
If you really feel the need to detox and have the time and opportunity to take your family away to a mountain cabin, where you throw away all digital devices, play board games and have long discussions around the crackling fire, go for it. This is not practical for most of us. So, we will have to work slowly and in incremental steps, practicing some of the suggested activities in our book.
Lopez: Laraine, why is it important for you to visit a nursing home every month? Does it help you with listening?
Laraine Bennett: The nursing home for me is like visiting the Carthusian monastery, the Grande Chartreuse — a place where silence reigns. Sure, there is noise, but so many of the residents dwell in silence; they are alone within their inability to move, humiliatingly dependent on others for every personal detail, often viewed as irritating inconveniences, bodies that require tending to; their voices either unheard or taken from them by stroke or illness.
With each resident, I must ask — and then strain to listen — whether they want to receive Holy Communion or to just pray with me. It is a huge battle for me to not look at my list of Catholic residents and then check them off, as though I were checking off a list of items at the grocery store. Each one needs to be visited as though they are Jesus in a most distressing guise. Each one needs to be listened to, loved.
Lopez: How do we tend to treat God and prayer like a “vending machine”? What does this have to do with listening?
Art Bennett: With “Tuned In,” we are looking for alternatives to the consumer and transactional exchanges so many of us are stuck in. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says we sometimes treat the Eucharist and other sacraments like vending machines dispensing grace. We may be as indifferent to others at Mass as we are to customers at the corner 7-Eleven. We pick up our grace and head home, self-satisfied. But are we radically changed? Or did we just check off the box marked “Church”? Does God’s love and grace transform our lives? It should!
Our friends and family members should be able to see that something has changed! We are kinder, more joyful, more compassionate than we used to be. Perhaps they might notice that we are listening better! We care more about the poor and needy.
Lopez: You describe your book as listening “to God . . . to others”; “to your heart, your body, wisdom, criticism”; “to the silence.” Are these fundamentally similar or different things?
Art Bennett: Though they are all different, we wanted to highlight the sort of listening, the posture of attentiveness, if you will, that is common to each one. Even more, the need for humility and openness to the other — whether that other is another person, God, nature, criticism.
The most obviously difficult to listen to is criticism from others. But a nondefensive, open attitude, a humble willingness to learn will afford the best opportunity to grow, to become closer to others, to learn from God and to remain in the truth.
Lopez: How is listening “a true mercy”?
Art Bennett: Listening — the way we mean listening — that is, not just having ears and waiting for my turn while someone else speaks — means being intentional about listening. It means having an attentiveness, an alertness, a posture of reverence toward the other. As Pope Francis said, we should take off our sandals before the sacred ground of the other. In this sense, listening is a virtue, an art and a mercy. It is a true gift of self.
And as Pope Francis said during the Year of Mercy, sometimes what is really needed in order to be merciful is to simply listen. Listen to the other person’s pain, their suffering, their heart.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and a contributor to Angelus.
Learning to listen
I would like to encourage everyone to see society not as a forum where strangers compete and try to come out on top, but above all as a home or a family, where the door is always open and where everyone feels welcome. For this to happen, we must first listen. …
Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.
Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me.
Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.
— “Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter,” Message for World Communications Day 2016
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