Learning to Listen

cherry blossoms

For Lent one year, I thought hard about what would be a true sacrifice I could make during the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

I was a young mother at the time, staying home with my children. There were so few things that were even mine to give up. I was not eating in fancy restaurants or buying nice clothes — we didn’t have the money for that. I had no time for vices. But I did have a group of other young mothers. We met weekly, sometimes more, for the kids to play and the moms to chat. I never considered giving up my outings. I couldn’t see how losing community could bring me closer to God.

But I wondered: Could I stop telling stories for six weeks? The idea was that in every interaction, rather than me dominating the conversation with my news, my observations, my humorous happenings, I would step back and listen. I would use my time with my friends to hear about their lives, to ask sincere questions about their thoughts and their world and their wonderings.

It would be a way to step away from selfishness for a short while — from pride and envy and greed. And to perhaps help my neighbor, giving her a place to untangle something trying or to share a moment of joy. Our exchange would be about her rather than me.

In the end, I did not give up telling stories for Lent. I couldn’t figure how to go about it without seeming strange. I couldn’t think how to answer people who asked: What did you give up for Lent? Oh, telling stories.

But over the last few weeks, this consideration has come back to me.

As black men and women have been killed by those sworn to protect them, as their sisters and brothers have taken to the streets demanding that our institutions change to keep this from happening again, as white people begin to fathom the injustices that black people have lived with for centuries, one of the recommendations to those who want to help rather than hinder is to simply listen.

There is a phrase in psychology that has gained popularity in the last several years: holding space.

It means to be present with someone and for someone. It means to spend time with another, ready to listen and not judge, ready to hear their truths without offering advice or taking control or injecting oneself or trying to fix anything. It means giving someone the space to be who they are and to work out what they need to. It means having conversations that are not about us.

I had not heard of holding space when I weighed what to give up for Lent all those years ago. But my conscience was somehow tugging me toward it.

Yet just as I couldn’t figure a way to make that meaningful Lenten sacrifice then, it feels awkward and hard and off balance to hold space for black people now.

We’ve been raised from the get-go to perform, to answer the test questions correctly, to stand up and stand out, to fix problems, to make a difference, to leave our marks on the world. To tell our stories.

And none of those actions is wrong in and of itself. But, I believe, there are moments when stepping back, being open, staying quiet can have value too. I’m thinking for me — for white people — this is one of those moments.

So, I am trying. To judge less. To stop framing others’ narratives with my limited understanding. To end the commentary on actions I don’t fully understand. I am seeking others’ points of view through what I read and watch and listen to. I am questioning what I thought I knew.

I am holding space.

I am learning to listen.

It’s not enough. But it’s a place to start.