Listening To Others

Swedenborg sometimes comments on the fact that when we’re really listening to someone, we’re not focusing on their words. Our mind jumps intuitively to the meaning.

A person who directs their attention to the meaning of the words a speaker uses does indeed hear their words, but it’s as though they do not hear them. They grasp only the meaning of them. And anyone who thinks more profoundly does not pay attention even to the meaning of the words, only to their fuller implications.
(Arcana Caelestia 241)

By contrast,

A person who pays no attention to the meaning of the speaker's words but to the words themselves grasps very little of their meaning, still less any fuller implications. (ibid.)

We tend to do this when we are not really interested in what another is saying and perhaps are looking for a way to dismiss them or argue with them. A person in this mode ‘sometimes relies on a single expression or even one grammatical usage to determine the whole of what somebody is saying’ (ibid.). Focusing on individual words in this way often brings the speaker’s meaning into greater darkness!

Why do we talk anyway?

[Human] speech has its origin in the end in view a person has which they wish to make known through speech. This end is their love; for a person has what they love as their end in view. From that end arises the person's thought, and finally their speech... [T]his being so, when a person pays attention to what another utters they pay attention not to the words the speaker uses but to the meaning conveyed by them which is present in the speaker's thought. And one who is wise pays attention to the end in view that has given rise to the thought expressed in speech, that is, they pay attention to what the speaker's aims are and what they love. (Arcana Caelestia 9407.2)

A wise person, in listening to others, is listening both for meaning and for the spirit and intent of that meaning. And they listen in order to better love and affirm what is good and true in the speaker. Listening is a discipline that asks for integrity! We need to suspend our ego and our own agenda, have patience and goodwill!

Taking this thought in another direction, the passage I just quoted is actually talking about the Word. The Lord speaks the Word with a purpose that relates to His love. That purpose is always behind the ideas that are presented there and behind the words that expressed them. In reading the Word, it is easy to get caught up in the words and to forget to listen for the deeper ideas and the even deeper intent behind them.

One of the wonderful things about New Church teachings is that they take our attention off the mere literal words and meaning of Scripture and help us to see them as servants of the Lord’s intent. And they help us see that intent.

Of course, we might wonder why the Lord chooses to speak to us in Scripture, using words originally addressed to ancient peoples. Couldn’t He express Himself more directly and clearly? It often takes work to see the Divine love and intent. But we’re invited to see that the Lord’s wisdom is behind His method of communicating. He works to preserve our freedom to respond. And the indirect forms of story, prophecy, history and poetry, have power to contain His meaning in a deeper, fuller way, when we have the willingness and patience to ‘walk with Him’ and spend time with Him.

Are you a good listener? Do you listen to others - more deeply than to their words? With listening to people and to the Lord, it’s not just about getting rational content from their communication, it’s about connecting with their spirit. May we take the time, and nurture the patience and love to listen.