Learning to Listen

I recently met a long-time buddy for a belated birthday chat.  We go way back, to my drinking days, when the nights were long and the days were blurry.  We both have been sober a good while, so we can now share a good laugh at the bad old days and just be thankful we made it through alive.

As we were readying to leave, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “So, what’s your big takeaway on turning 70?”


I fiddled with my cap, looked away, and finally muttered something that sounded life “life goes on,” but I knew there was more to say, much more.  I’d survived so many self-inflicted disasters, passed through so many dark nights, and been the recipient of so much undeserved grace that having survived 70 years, I owed it to myself to arrive at my real answer.

The answer came on a weekend with our grandson.  Sam is two-and-a-half and is in his early days of language.  He talks up a storm but in words I sometimes struggle to decode.  He’ll look at me with great earnestness and say something that sounds like, “anpa, un ite on,” (“Grandpa, turn the light on”) or “anates now” (“Please make me pancakes now”).

These exchanges between Sam and me are enormously important; he’s learning to relate to me as a conscious human being and I’m learning to treat him as a conscious human being.

But to actually communicate:

  • it takes intense repetition on his part, and
  • an enormous amount of patient listening on my part.

If we stay focused on each other, intent on extracting meaning from the conversation, we both experience a deepening bond.  During my weekend with Sam, we had a sentinel moment when a light went on and I could clearly see my great takeaway from having turned 70.

Sam and I were playing with his toys and his favorite toys have wheels: trucks, cars and buses.  He decided to name of the color of each vehicle: the blue car, the red fire engine, the green truck.  When he started working on the color yellow he got excited: the yellow dump truck, the yellow school bus.

Then he said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like Eh yellow, Eh yellow, Eh yellow.  He looked at me with earnest eyes as if begging me to understand him.  He kept repeating himself Eh yellow, Eh yellow.  I realized how important it was to him that I get the meaning of his words.  He needed to connect with me and I wanted desperately to comprehend what he was saying.  I went silent as I struggled to understand.

Then it dawned on me…

Earlier that morning Sam had helped me make pancakes.  I taught him how to break an egg and he took great delight in watching the egg yolk fall into the bowl.  A light went on for me.  I said to Sam, “Egg yellow?”  He howled with delight — we had connected!  Two unrelated events tied to a common topic: the color yellow.  We shared an abstract thought, in real time.

My relationship with Sam was taken to a new level!  Had I not listened with the intent to understand we never would have been able to share this exquisite moment of perfect communication.

Isn’t it true that only in listening do we ever achieve understanding?  Cannot it therefore be said there is no more important human function than……listening?  But listening is often impossibly difficult!

For so many of my early years I was incapable of real listening, always focusing on what I would say next and not on what was being said.  If this was not bad enough, I often felt compelled to finish other people’s sentences!  And yet I would tell you I was a great listener.

It was only when I hit bottom, pulled the cotton out of my ears and listened, that my world began to change.  I discovered the wellspring of all knowledge:

  • To listen
  • To hear 
  • To understand

In my early meetings I began to practice deep listening.  I began to hear, and, glorious, I was also heard — truly heard.  I was just as excited as when Sam and I connected on the color yellow!

The answer to my friend’s question was now clear to me.  Since I was the age of Sam life’s been asking me to listen.  All that I’d ever need to know was available to me — if I’d only learn to listen.

So what’s my big takeaway having turned 70?

Listen — and I’ll show you.

Just a thought…


Copyright © 2019 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.

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