Old habits can be very hard to break. Case in point: my difficulty in breaking out of the mold of being a stereotypical male.
I’m reminded of this far too often and in many different ways. However, one of the more consistent occurrences involves listening. Or, to be more accurate, not listening.
The stereotype is that men are encouraged, and even trained, to be the center of attention. It is a stereotype, in this case, because it is usually true. Studies show that boys are called on more in school, that boys grow up to become men who talk more in meetings, and that we interrupt women more than we interrupt men.
Most of the time I fall into this pattern of interruption because I’m not thinking. But a few times I do it knowingly and with the best of intentions. That was the case earlier this year when I found myself talking over a friend to “help her” explain something that I thought might be difficult to articulate. Not because she isn’t a smart, articulate person, but because I perceived it could be an emotionally difficult subject.
I interrupted her attempt to talk to me. Later, when I was home and reflecting on the conversation, I realized that I didn’t really know how she felt, because I had spoken over her and inserted my perceptions over hers. The next time we spoke I apologized. And then I asked if she would talk while I promised to be quiet and listen. But the moment had passed and she couldn’t remember, or didn’t want to return, to the topic.
So both my friend and I lost out by my decision to talk instead of listen.
Listening is an act of love. However, as much as I try to act out of love for others, this is obviously a part of my practice in life that needs more work. Recognition is only part of the solution. Active, intentional listening requires more.
In Rebecca Solnit’s insightful new book Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters, the author quotes the actor Chris Evans, in the context of the #MeToo movement, as saying of well-meaning men, “The hardest thing to reconcile is that just because you have good intentions doesn’t mean it’s your time to have a voice.”
Men who are privileged (virtually all white males) and who have power often complain or push back about being made to feel uncomfortable. Solnit makes the point that, “Comfort is often a code word for the right to be unaware, the right to have no twinges of one’s conscience, no reminders of suffering, the right to be a ‘we’ whose benefits are not limited by the needs and rights of any of ‘them.'”
Solnit suggests that, “The world is an uneven surface, with plenty to trip on and room to reinvent.” Her opening essay ends with this equal parts hopeful and challenging observation:
“This country has room for everybody who believes that there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t—well, that’s why there’s a battle about whose story it is to tell.”
In thinking back, and then looking forward, to my conversations, I’m trying to listen with love. To push myself out of the need to feel comfortable. And, even, to reinvent my world to be a more inclusive place.
In other words, to be open to the fact that it isn’t always my story to tell.
More to come…
Installment #14 of The Gap Year Chronicles