It was one of many awkward moments during our end-of-the-year eighth grade retreat. My classmates were exchanging beads with each other, sharing memories and compliments with each other as they did so, and building bracelets that represented the friendships they had formed over the past eight years at our Catholic grade school. I stood diffidently to the side, trying to look as if I was busy and not there at the same time, as I tried to decide who to approach to offer a bead. At that moment that a new thought popped into my head: I must be shy. Certainly, I knew other people who were shy, but this was the first time that I had applied the term to myself.
Over the next few years, this label turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The more I thought about being shy, the more difficult it was for me to approach people because I would spend the whole time judging myself for how socially awkward I was being. I became so timid that even seemingly simple interactions (asking the librarian for a book on reserve, delivering something to an office at school that I had never been to before) made my palms sweat.
In retrospect, being shy actually had an upside. In an effort to keep attention deflected from myself, I became a really good listener. I learned to look people in the eye when they were telling their stories and to nod and say “hmm” sympathetically to show them I was following along. Most importantly, I developed the art of asking good questions, questions that kept them talking about themselves. While this sort of question asking started out as a conversational coping mechanism, I soon discovered that I loved learning about people’s stories. Almost always hearing others’ stories helped me learn more about myself or gave me a sense of joy at connecting to another person’s humanity. Even later I found out that the questions that I asked allowed the story-tellers to see the value in their stories and occasionally helped them find their own answer to a dilemma they faced.
The downside of being a good listener is that I am not the best speaker. To this day, I feel shy talking too much about my experiences. After a minute or two, I feel the flush rising in my face, and I casually use a question to shift the conversational focus. I am hesitant to share what is bothering me with others and to seek their support. Yet good communication and strong relationships take both listening and speaking. If I only listen and do not also talk, I deprive myself of the chance to be known more deeply by other people and deprive them the chance of knowing the true me.
This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the feast that commemorates the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus’ disciples after his death. In the first reading from Acts 2: 1-11, we hear the familiar Pentecost story of tongues of fire resting above the heads of the disciples, as all of them are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages. A gathered crowd of Jews, who are from all over the world, amazingly hear the disciples speaking, each in their native language.
We usually think of Pentecost an event of speaking. We concentrate on the disciples’ ability to speak in a way that is intelligible to people all over the world. Yet as Eric Law has pointed out, Pentecost also involves listening.* Had the disciples spoken to an empty street, or to people who could not understand them, we would not have an event to celebrate this Sunday—and we might not even have a church! Like all effective communication, Pentecost needs both speaking and listening. Pentecost needs the disciples proclaiming God’s deeds of power and the good news of Jesus, and it also needs people to hear this good news and to take it to heart. Growing in our relationship with God, with Jesus, and with each other involves speaking and listening.
Which is more comfortable for you—speaking or listening?
Is speaking or listening valued more in your family? By your friends? At your school? In our society?
How are both speaking and listening important for relationships? How are both speaking and listening important for faith?
*Eric H. F. Law, Sunday by Sunday, vol. 22, no. 35.
Photo from Flickr user Lawrence OP