Learning to Listen: It’s Harder Than You Think

As a physician, I think I am a good listener. More than 75 percent of practicing medicine is listening closely to what the patient says and then asking the right questions. I think the same is true about being a friend or a colleague. Advancing an idea, building a team, or developing a plan all come from listening to everyone involved. This is intensely true with regard to families and those we love the most—which is when we tend to do it the least.

I’m especially reminded of this by a story my father tells.

learning to listen

In the spring of 1952, during the Korean War, my father was flying a small fighter plane off an aircraft carrier in the China Sea. Officially, US forces were not supposed to be flying over North Korea, but he was on an assigned mission with a target to bomb. He flew very low, and anti-aircraft fire exploded around him. His plane was shot in hundreds of places, leaving him no option but to bail out.

When his parachute landed, my father knew he was in danger. As a 22-year-old Navy officer, he had no intention of being captured. He was armed to the teeth, and when a truck rumbled toward him he was prepared to fight. My father readied his handgun. Over the hill came a US Marine. With his adrenaline on overload, my father’s aim did not waver. Calmly, the Marine said, “Give me your gun.”

My father turned it over.

Back on the aircraft carrier, officers debriefed him about the incident and his terrifying near-death experience. After a few brief questions, he was asked, “What happened to your gun?”

“I don’t remember,” he replied.

Over the next few weeks, he had several more interviews. He remembers, “I was asked over and over again about what happened to my gun, but no one ever asked what happened to me.”

After 60 years, my father’s favorite song is still the Marine Corps hymn because a Marine rescued him, but he has never forgotten that no one asked about him on that day.

The truth is, we rarely ask about the other person and how he or she really feels. We are quick to tell our story. We seem to always believe that our point of view is more interesting, more important, and more meaningful than the person we are talking to. I find myself doing it. What is worse, I do it without realizing it. I hate it when I catch myself interrupting someone telling a story. It means I am not fully listening to what the person is saying.

It is not possible to get close to someone without truly listening to what he or she has to say and then, at least, give a non-judgmental assessment of the merits of the person’s point of view. Failing to do this is what causes almost all of the conflicts we face in life. From the playground to the boardroom, from the bedroom to the battlefield, we don’t engage in listening to the other person’s point of view.

Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said, “I don’t like that person, I need to get to know him better.” It is also true that I may not know a person well enough to like him because I have not really heard what he is saying.

My father rarely, in my presence, has told the story of being shot down. Whenever he has, I don’t care what happened to the gun.

I care what happened to him.

Get Your Spiritual Exercise

People often notice when I eat a piece of cake or have a hamburger and fries at a local sports game. They ask, “Hey, Doc, is that approved by the Church Health Center’s Model for Healthy Living?”

Well, as I write this, I am proud to say that it has been two months since I have eaten any junk, and I eat fruit throughout the day.

I’m also trying hard to maintain exercise in my schedule. But recently I was on my elliptical machine at home when my wife, Mary, rushed in. “Come downstairs right now,” she insisted, “and go outside!”

I replied, “But I haven’t finished exercising. I have another 20 minutes to go.” I was emphatic.

She said, “You need to do this for your spiritual exercise.”

I reluctantly stopped and went to our front yard. When I got there, I found Leo, Ozzie, Will, Max, and Henry playing with the neighborhood dogs alongside their parents. The boys are all under three years old. They were all barefoot and having fun in the simplest of ways. Seeing them immediately put a smile on my face, and I knew what Mary meant by “spiritual exercise.”

spiritual exercise

One Sunday, I was deeply involved in preparing my lesson for my Sunday school class when I looked up. Leo and Ozzie were taking turns sticking their heads into the spray of the sprinkler watering our lawn. It was another moment of spiritual exercise.

I have three “adopted” nephews who produce this same sort of joy for me. When I get together with them, they put the childhood rascal back into me. Once, after I was babysitting them when they were toddlers, Mary came home to find spaghetti on the walls of her kitchen. I had to coax her into seeing this as an exercise of a spiritual nature. Of course, it doesn’t always work out smoothly. When my spaghetti nephews were younger, I took them to the zoo, and they cried very, very loudly the entire ride there. It was painful.

I trust you see the point of my telling these stories. Exercising the spirit is as important as physical movement. We need to make time for both. And we need a healthy portion as well. Spiritual exercise can pop up at surprising moments, so we should always be ready to engage when it arrives—even if it interrupts what seems like weighty matters.

This is not to say I’m going to use spiritual exercise an excuse to abandon my elliptical or a healthy Mediterranean diet. This is not a cop-out to eat chocolate cake or shorten my aerobic activity. But as I grow old(er), I recognize more and more that I need balance in my life. The boys in the neighborhood make me smile at the drop of a hat. They touch my spirit. They bring me joy.

And I am so glad they have young parents who will take them home!

The Most Radical Reaction to Ebola is Compassion

Over the weekend, my wife, Mary, told me that she intends to get a flu shot this year (which she never does) because she believes it will prevent her from contracting Ebola.

I think she is only partially kidding.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that a nurse in Dallas has contracted Ebola from the patient who died there last week. It was the lead story in my local paper, and I’m guessing that it was on the front page of your go-to news source as well. We can’t look away from disaster.

Or, in this case, perceived disaster.

Ebola is indeed a terrible disease, but I’m convinced that it does not warrant the hysteria it has created in the United States.

Ebola has been linked to Liberia, and anyone from that country is now considered a potential carrier of the disease. Until recently, few Americans could find Liberia on the map, which is remarkably ironic.

Here’s why.

Liberia was established as a country in 1820 by freed African-American slaves. The colonizers, known as Americo-Liberians, were helped by the American Colonization Society, which believed that emancipated slaves should return to Africa. The country established a government modeled after that of the United States. Its capital, Monrovia, is named after American president James Monroe. English is Liberia’s official language.

In 1980, a bloody coup overthrew the Americo-Liberian leadership and for years there has been political and economic instability. Almost half a million Liberians died during the civil war.

Few Americans took notice.

As a United Methodist minister, I am amazed that there are more than 400,000 United Methodists in Liberia, far more than in one Methodist Annual Conference in the U.S.

Recently, a man came to our Church Health Center clinic complaining of a headache and eye pain that had lasted for two weeks. I noticed he had an unusual accent.

“Where are you from?,” I asked.

“Liberia,” he said.

“Are you worried about Ebola?”

His tears were forthcoming. Not for himself, but for all his family and friends who are at risk and who are unable to travel because of the quarantine.

It was clear why his head and eyes were hurting. It wasn’t Ebola: it was his heart aching for those he cares about the most. Still, there are those who would want me to test him for Ebola just because he is a native of Liberia. Where is the compassion in this reactive response?

This week when I see my patients, I will undoubtedly encounter someone with a fever. They might even be of African descent. When that happens, my first thought will be that they have the flu.

When I gave my wife her flu shot this morning, I prayed for the nurse in Dallas and all those in Liberia we distanced ourselves from long ago. When this health scare has subsided, maybe we will remember our historical and spiritual connection to a people who have suffered greatly.

What Gives You Joy?

What gives you joy?

This is an essential question to ask yourself. Unfortunately, often we are not in tune with our own desires enough to be able to fully answer the question. If you have to think very long to come up with your answer, then you prove my point.

Joy is a hard concept to grasp. It’s more complex than happiness in that it is not an emotion or transient. It goes deep. It touches your bones.

Perea Preschool joy

Children have a direct line to joy. You can feel it immediately when you walk down the hall of Perea Preschool, one of the Church Health Center’s outreach ministries.

Recently we asked staff and patients at the Church Health Center this question and got answers that run the gamut.

Family and friends.

Dancing like no one is watching.

Dogs.

Being a mother.

Love of God.

The list went on and on.

There is no right answer to the question. Neither is there a limit to the number of answers. For me personally, what gives me joy includes my work, my wife, my puppy, learning, my friends, my church, laughter, sports. It’s a long list.

What I hope is that I am in tune with each experience of joy as it is happening. For too much of our lives, we let those things that bring us joy slip through our fingers like water.

It is also important to recognize the opposite of joy, which I consider to be anger. The movie “Philomena,” is based on a true story. Martin, a journalist, tries to help an elderly woman find the son who was taken from her when he was young. As the circumstances unfold and Martin understands what happened, he becomes increasingly indignant and furious at the people who unjustly changed Philomena’s life. At one point, while he is in a rage, Philomena stops him in his tracks. He says, “But I am so angry!” To which she replies, “It must be so exhausting.”

Yes, exactly. Anger will exhaust you while joy will invigorate you.

Pure joy is a source of unbounded energy. When I see it expressed in someone else, I want to put a straw in the person to pull out joy and taste it for myself. But what I know is that I must find my own source of joy and limit the anger I feel, no matter how righteous my indignation.

Anger will consume you. Joy will build you up.

As a physician, I often encounter people who have physical complaints I’m confident are caused by their lack of joy. I have no pills to make them better. Searching ourselves for the source of joy in our own lives is worth the effort and leads to true health, just as anger will bleed the life out of you as surely as a knife to the heart.

What gives you joy? It is worth asking yourself that question on a regular basis and making sure you are living your life so that every day your joy is made complete.

To read more about joy and its role in our health, see the Summer 2014 issue of the Church Health Center’s magazine, Church Health Reader, at http://www.chreader.org.