I’m a bit surprised when the hotel clerk asks me if I like my in-laws. I tell her I do, but that there are always differences in every family. She nods and begins to share about her family and the struggle she has with her in-laws. I listen and comment occasionally.
Something I’ve said causes her to tilt her head and ask me what I do. I tell her I’m a pastor. Her eyes light up, and she shares more of her life with me. She tells me about the struggles she is facing and the challenges she experiences with her familial relationships. I nod.
I understand how challenging relationships can be; so, I share what works for me, reflective listening. She asks me, “What’s reflective listening?” and I explain that reflective listening is about hearing before being heard. It is about listening to understand another before, and maybe in spite of, being understood ourselves. Listening in this way, I say, “is, what Jesus taught us to do to, ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and... to love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ “ (Matthew 22:38-39, Mark 12:30-31)
She writes down reflective listening, as I attempt to model for her what reflective listening is like by sharing back to her what I understood from all she had said.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges facing our country today,” I say. “Everyone wants to speak, but no one wants to listen.” Even as I say these words, I know how true they are, just how true they are for me. I enjoy talking and having someone listening to me. I know I’ve talked as much as I’ve listened during our conversation.
The conversation lulls, and I wonder to myself, “Did she hear me earlier? When we were in line at the grocery store, and I was looking at that magazine covers and commenting to my friend about how, ‘This George Floyd stuff is all over the news.’ Was she listening? Did she hear me say that when I see his face my heart breaks, and I feel sick inside?”
I don’t know, and I’m too afraid to ask.
Instead, I comment about how not feeling heard makes us angry. She mentions how quietly bowing a knee was a problem — no one would listen. I’m quiet for a moment as I consider the differences in bent knees, how one bent knee ended a career and another knee stole a man’s life. I say something of what I’ve been thinking, and with tears in my voice, I say, “I’m sorry. No one deserves to be treated as if they do not have value. I’m sorry. I would not want that for my brother, my son, my father, my cousin. I wouldn’t want that for you or your family, for anyone at all.”
With a tissue box extended to me, she says, “Thank you, but you haven’t done anything.” I take the tissue, and say awkwardly, “Maybe, maybe not, but I know I have benefited from a world that has given me greater opportunities and advantages.” I do not have to add because of the color of my skin. She knows. To that, she simply nods, and says, “thank you.”
We talk for a while longer, about faith and family, the Bible and prayer. I offer to pray with her before I go back to my room, and she graciously accepts.
Days later the truth of her words continue to unsettle me. “… you haven’t done anything,” and she was right. I hadn’t done anything, not to her at least. But, that doesn’t change the reality that I really, “haven’t done anything” of significance about racial inequality and bigotry. I’m not sure what to do, where to begin, and it’s almost immobilizing. I recognize my well-intentioned, semi-guilt-filled, fix-it-from-a-place-of-power mentality, and that’s not who I want to be. I know I don’t want to treat others how I’ve been treated, how when others have witnessed my life’s pain, they either disassociated from me or doctored me. My pain either made them feel powerless — I beyond healing — or powerful — they could heal me. Their actions were more about how my pain made them feel than about me. They needed a way to deal with my pain, so it was either inaction or the action they thought I needed. Neither response considered that I might know what I needed and would appreciate the dignity of being asked.
Listening and then acting would have brought far more healing to my life than all the platitudes I was given. There is dignity in asking what someone needs and then listening deeply, reflectively. Maybe listening is the most loving thing to do, the most neighborly place to start.