A Listening Silence

I want to think today about how we listen to each other.

This is not going to be a lament that we don’t listen to each other any more, but back in the old days, whenever you were a child, people really did listen. I think that’s probably true, by the way; there were so few things to “listen to” back then that listening to people was a much more common activity than it is now.

This is going to be about therapeutic listening.

Not listening by therapists or to therapists. There is a healing that comes just from being listen 4heard and one step on the road to being heard is being listened to. There is another step, but I want to share a couple lines of text before I go on to talk about that one—a couple of lines and the story that goes with it.

They listened to him, not agreeing, not denying, but accepting his despair. His words went into their listening silence, and rested there for days, and came back to him changed. [1]

To grasp this text more fully we will need to know a few more things, like “they” and “him” and “his words” and we will get to all that. For now, I want you to notice that it is the words that change. You could argue that words don’t actually change. That is my own very solid empiricist tradition, in fact, but this text is from Ursula LeGuin to whom I have given my heart many years ago and it takes place in her Earthsea, which is not really as rich as Middle Earth, but which is a place I am at home. And LeGuin does this. It is a pattern in her fiction. She has “it” act while we watch. [2]

So notice, first, that “the words came back to him.” And when they came back, they were changed. In a little bit, we will need to know what those words were, but for now, let’s look where they went because that is what I really want to talk about.

The words went into “their listening silence.” The words came out of Medra [3] and they went somewhere. They went into a listening silence.” Now a listening silence isn’t like a black hole or an acoustical dead zone. A listening silence is created and maintained as an act of caring. It is a place where words can be changed, words can take other forms, and return to be newly heard by the speaker.

So Medra, who spoke the words, could mean by them only what he meant. The words he chose expressed perfectly how he really felt, but after he had said them, they went away and were changed and came back to him meaning something else. The words now meant something he had been unable to say and unable to mean before. Here’s what he said.

“Trust;’ the young man said, “Yes. But against— against them?— Gelluk’s [an evil wizard] gone. Maybe Losen [an evil king] will fall now. Will it make any difference? Will the slaves go free? Will beggars eat? Will justice be done? [5] I think there’s an evil in us, in humankind, Trust denies it. Leaps across it. Leaps the chasm. But it’s there, And everything we do finally serves evil, because that’s what we are, Greed and cruelty. I look at the world, at the forests and the mountain here, the sky, and it’s all right, as it should be, But we aren’t, People aren’t, We’re wrong. We do wrong. No animal does wrong. How could they? But we can, and we do. And we never stop.”

OK, that’s a rant. It might have been hard to hear and both the women who heard this knew it was true. But they knew something else; they knew it didn’t lead anywhere. And that is what happened to Medra’s words during their time in “the listening silence.” They were changed into something that actually did lead somewhere.  Roke Island, the home of all magic is the purple dot right in the center of the map, south of Havnor

listen 6Let me take a small professional break from the story. I am a political psychologist by training and, if I were still being paid for it, by trade as well. I look at how people explain things to themselves and at what value the particular explanations they choose have for them. These explanations are called “causal attributions” in the end of the pool where I swim and Medra’s causal attributions go nowhere. If Medra is right about how things are and must be, then his despair is fully justified and he might just as well lie down and die. What I teach is how to make causal attributions that help you get up and do something. It’s a really good causal attribution—it meets one of the two criteria—if it does that.[5]

The women did that for Medra. What women?

Anieb died while he [Medra] held her, her ruined face against his arm. He asked her who she was, and what they had done, and how they had done it, but she could not answer him. Her mother Ayo and her mother’s sister Mead were wise women. They healed [Medra] as best they could with warm oils and massage, herbs and chants, They talked to him and listened when he talked.

That is part of who these women were. They were “wise women.” Medra did everything he could to save the life of Ayo’s daughter Anieb and failed. He was broken in body and spirit by what he and Anieb had been through together and Ayo and Mead nursed his body back to health. That’s what the warm oils and the massage and the herbs and chants did. But they also talked to him and listened to him and that enabled him to deliver the rant we heard him give.

listen 3We have seen that the women were healers and they were wise. We see now that they were also political subversives. They were part of a loosely strung web called “the women of the Hand.” Women, and a few men, who had no power but who trusted each other and who wanted, to borrow a few phrases from Medra’s rant “the slaves to go free and the beggars to eat and justice to be done.” They were known to each other by a sign.

She [Mead, Ayo’s sister] held- up her first finger; raised the other fingers, and clenched them together into a fist; then slowly turned her wrist and opened her hand palm out, as if in offering. He had seen Anieb make that gesture. It was not a spell, he thought, watching intently, but a sign.

It was, in fact, a sign. It said, “I am of the women of the Hand” and by telling you this, I am putting my life in your hands. So it wasn’t just the listening that Ayo and Mead gave to Medra. Making the place—it wasn’t just the “listening silence,” into which Medra’s angry words could go and could return to him changed—required that they be who they were. They were wise women and dangerous women. They wanted freedom and justice and they were part of a subversive group who refused to want something less.

Here’s what Medra said when the words returned to him out of the listening silence that Ayo and Mead held in place for him.

We can’t do anything without each other;’ he said. “But it’s the greedy ones, the cruel ones who hold together and strengthen each other, And those who won’t join them stand each alone.

Medra began at “Everything we do finally serves evil, because that’s who we are.” In his anger and despair, Medra talks about the nature of human beings and the nature of society. He talks about things that cannot be changed. Those words went into the listening silence held in place by the strength and the compassion of the wise women and when they came back to Medra, they were no longer about who we are and must be; they were about what we can do together.

What they could do and did do is what the rest of the novella is about, but the story would have gone nowhere without the wise women. Medra would have let his pain and guilt destroy him. Or he would have let his anger take him into self-destructive acts of resistance. But because his words came back to him changed, he became one of the men who served with “the women of the hand” and long afterward, he discovered the Book of Naming in the house of a poor woman on the island of Pody, where the mage Ath had hidden it many years before.

How did he find it? First, he went looking for it. But…he also had help. This is what that looked like.

I won’t be so bold as to ask for a kiss, said Medra [posing as a peddler of trinkets], but an open hand, maybe?” He made the sign; she looked at him for a moment. “That’s easy, she said softly, and made the sign in return, “but not always safe among strangers.”

And she took him to the house of the poor woman where the priceless Book of Names had been hidden and took it to Roke Island, where it became to basis of all resistance to tyranny.

I look around at the place where I live and at the people with whom I live and at myself as well and I wonder what could happen if we could hold in place a “listening silence”—a place from which words could return, changed, to the speakers. The words would return changed and they would change the speakers, perhaps as Medra was changed, from hopelessness or anger—we don’t know which way he would have gone—to trust and subversion.

[1] This is Ursula LeGuin at her best. It is what I like best, at any rate, about her. These few lines, and the story that gives them their meaning, are in her Tales of Earthsea, this one from a story called “The Finder.”
[2] In The Dispossessed, the protagonist, Shevek, watches his greatest theoretical breakthrough running away, laughing, and he knows he will always remember what it is.
[3] In Earthsea, everyone has a “true name” and a “use name.” Because he lives the kind of life he does, Medra has two use names, Tern and Otter, but we will stay with his one name, his true name.
[4] Anyone else hear Amos ranting there against the evils of Israel or James against the rich of his congregations. See chapter 5 of each of those books, Amos in the Old Testament, James in the New, for and account that sounds amazingly like Medra.
[5] The other is authenticity—effectiveness alone doesn’t cut it—but that will have to wait for another blog.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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