Listening: Giving Geniune Attention to the Other
Here's Vlad's story, which I liked particularly because of the discussion of Freedom at the end. Enjoy.
~ norrie mAy
When the small group of SCM people from the recent 2005 national conference came to Redfern for an exposure visit I introduced them to a local Aboriginal woman, aged in her early 40s, whom I will call Kathy. I had organised various visits with locals a few weeks before but Kathy was not one of them.
As I walked to Redfern Railway Station to meet the group just before 9am, I met Kathy. She did her usual ‘hit’ on me as she had done for the last five years. Most of our conversations have been in the street. But they have had a degree of simple depth. I have come to know of her heroin addiction and attempts to enter the methadone programme, the bashings by her partner when he drinks too much (I also know him and, sober, he is a really funny guy who I see regularly on The Block), and her few suicide attempts visibly evident by heavy bandaging and later by the deep scars.
So, when I met Kathy that morning, I asked if she would sit and have coffee with the SCM people and just tell us about her life. Yep, she said, but can you give me some money as well? I did. She did meet us an hour later for coffee in a cafe, but she was now really high on heroin. Although she was ‘nodding’, at times nearly falling asleep, she told us about her life: about her love for her six kids who lived in another State because she was unable to care for them, her fluctuating life, what it was like to live in Redfern, what her habit did to her and what her relationship is like.
What a despairing life, many would say. And the SCM group really felt for her, I could see this clearly. Yet there is a kindness and a beauty in her face, though lined and aged beyond her years, which has always moved me. This is her life. She has a simple and basic faith in God and love for other human beings. Many local agencies provide her with help when she needs it. She is a survivor. Sadly, she is considered ‘scum’ by a minority of locals in Redfern because of her habit.
Listening awry: discerning the other within the listener
For me, listening is paying genuine attention to an ‘other’: an ‘other’ who is different to me and from whom I can learn.
But genuine listening also requires a reflexive awareness of the ‘other of the listener. The ‘other’ being all those aspects of ourselves that are not always evident to us. That is, who am I, and what am I listening with? What are my cultural expectations? What is the context that has shaped my values, identity, culture and behaviour? What are my fears, anxieties and concerns, which relate to my inner self and are about spirituality? How do my gender, class, race and sexual orientation influence my listening?
Many middle class, churched people listening to a person like Kathy would say, what a sad and terrible life. Upon hearing her story, what is activated from within is a desire to change her life and make it hopeful and addiction-free. Of course wellbeing and wholeness is what we all want to bring about. But doing this too quickly and on the helper’s terms is more about the concerns of the helper than the person to whom we are listening. How do we do this with respect and the empowerment of the other?
I experienced this dominance of the listener in the listening relationship in a former congregation. I had organised church members into a number of visitation groups to meet unchurched people to listen to their stories so we could learn about our community. I was with one of a small group who listened to a person who, in my listening, shared an amazing personal story. When we gathered to share what we had heard, I was shocked to hear my group moralising, judging and indirectly ridiculing the person who shared their honest and vulnerable story. I realised that the churched people in my group, whom I was really fond of, were talking about themselves, their values and culture.
I learnt a few crucial lessons from that congregation which dented my own romantic notions: the realisation that we are all deeply embedded in our own contexts and cultures; that we need creative and prolonged exposure to difference and the need to develop more cross-cultural skills; and that there were aspects of my own inner life that needed to be addressed.
What are some of the factors that influence us as listener to control the relationship with the outsider?
From the perspective of the Eneagram, a creative spirituality tool with which I work, one personality type is called ‘the carer’. The carer’s primary attention is on how they can help the other person, particularly if they are in need of support. They are always in danger of listening with one goal in mind: to fix the other person on their terms. What they do not realise is that ‘giving’ makes them feel wanted and that it is motivated by the unconscious need to appear generous. They can repress their own needs. Life’s lessons and spiritual direction can lead carers into an awareness of these repressed needs. Then, when they listen to their own inner ‘other’, they can learn about themselves as much as the other person and care in a mutual and power-sharing manner. Of course, any character-type can fall into this desire to ‘save’ the needy person, and the church is an organisation that attracts such personality types.
Another factor that gets in the way of middle class listeners’ is the notion that we can all ‘progress’ and make our lives richer and ‘happier’. So, when we meet a person like Kathy, we project our values onto their broken lives. Added to this we may feel anxious because such lives challenge our western values and vulnerability. Realities like sickness, poverty, aging and addictions disturb western notions of a good, successful life with a golden future on the horizon. These same disturbing realities exist as much in suburbia as they do in an area like Redfern, but they go undetected because of the need to appear successful and progressive.
Contrary to our middle class anxieties about Kathy, she lives a day at a time, is grateful that she is alive, and while at times she wants to give up living, her daily existence is a miracle in itself. I learn from her small strength and her quiet inner beauty.
Listening, I suggest, is always learning to listen awry. We need to stand in another place, one outside our normal, conscious self, and learn about the other hidden, unconscious aspects of our context, culture, gender, race, class, religion and sexuality that shape and form both our imaginations and our mainstream church and society. If we listen awry then when we ask ‘what do we hear?’ we can understand more clearly how and what we are hearing with.
‘Wow!’ you say, ‘that all sounds a bit heavy when I am listening to people!’ You are right! I am not suggesting we consciously think about all this when we are involved in actual face-to-face listening. All this is backgrounded when I meet and listen to people in Redfern, Waterloo and South Sydney. But unless all the above is processed and I work hard at a hermeneutics of suspicion (uncovering my context, embeddedness and excessive power), work with a spiritual director, my shrink, have some creative self and society awareness, experience cross-cultural training, and debrief with a broad cross section of colleagues, then the work of creative listening will be limited. Sure, we can make people feel good and wanted without any such reflexive awareness, but will mutuality, empowerment and transformation occur for both listener and the listened-to, to the outsider and the insider?
Listening between the factions and fractures
My congregation produces a local, independent, tabloid newspaper, The South Sydney Herald, delivering 20,000 copies per month to 20,000 households. The biblical mandate I suggested to my congregation for our work was Jeremiah 29: 4-7: Jeremiah tells the Jewish people who have been exiled in Babylon, and who are camped along its sewers in extreme heat, that God says: seek the wellbeing (shalom) of the community you have been sent to, for in their wellbeing is your wellbeing. And that is what we do with the paper: take on all the issues in our area and produce a reflective, newsy newspaper. We have an editorial team that gathers news stories, comment pieces, features, entertainment, photos, and advertising from all over our area. We keep overt religious content to an extreme minimum, although we express the values of justice, compassion and concern for the marginalised which many groups, Christian or otherwise, have in South Sydney. This gathering of material regularly engages us all over our area. We always meet in cafes and we listen to people daily.
So, for the five years I have been here, we have just listened, learned … made mistakes, listened and done more listening, strategised, and then acted … so that we can go on providing a vehicle for the various voices and sectors of our mixed community, and especially the poor and marginalised. We always cover Aboriginal issues and stories, multicultural stories, and public housing issues, expressing concern for the homeless, supporting gay and lesbian groups and causes, featuring local stories about ordinary people, being politically involved in local, state and federal government issues.
Recently, the local ministers, the Anglican minister, my associate minister, Dorothy McRae McMahon, and myself were asked by the State Labor Minister for Redfern Waterloo Authority, Frank Sartor, to negotiate with the Aboriginal Housing Company for a way through a difficult stand-off between the two parties. This has meant sitting with both factions separately and listening and then trying to facilitate a process of creative negotiation. I have done some hard and honest talking and challenging of both parties, seeking a way forward. God says: seek the wellbeing (shalom) of the community you have been sent to, for in their wellbeing is your wellbeing.
This has meant working between the factions and the fractures of our community. Although the Aboriginal Housing Company may be considered to be the marginalised group, we have also learnt so much about the politics and power play of even the marginalised. One of my close Aboriginal friends, Annabelle Walker from the Northern Rivers of NSW, once told me her strategy for involvement with the many competing Christian groups in Redfern: You have to have many non-aligned partnerships, she said with humour.
How my faith has fashioned my listening
As a child and teenager I lived most of my life in Australia in a Russian home and socialised within the Russian community. In these early years I felt like I was an outsider, a Russian Australian, and so I learnt to listen so I could adapt and become an Aussie.
Life was tough for me as a kid, difficult enough in a poor, migrant family for me to feel that I could never escape the sadness and pain of it all. Yet, paradoxically, I sensed, in that deep Russian Orthodox manner and without anyone telling me, that a hidden, subtle God somehow, mysteriously, ‘held me from below’ as a sustaining Mother/Father (yes, though I never realised it then, there was this dual gender feeling to the ‘holding’) … and that this God was there for all of us. Then in my late teenage years I discovered Jesus who now, in Ernst Kasemann’s words, means freedom, personal and political. But I am extremely multi-faith-religion-unreligious as well. All this makes me value being a listener, open yet acknowledging the regular existence of bias.
My own experience of marginalisation, my spiritual influences, and in faith meeting ‘Jesus who means freedom’, have all given me a real passion/compassion and interest in other cultures and outsiders like Kathy, and shape my work of critical and creative thinking, empowerment of the marginalised, and cultural and structural transformation.
Vladimir Korotkov is a Uniting Church minister, minister of South Sydney Uniting Church, managing editor of The South Sydney Herald, and occasionally works as a support person for the NSW Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.