Jo Anne took me to Costco a while back to see if I needed Hearing Aids or was just tired of listening to her and tuning her out on purpose. Thankfully, the Costco Hearing Aid technician saved me. After an extensive test, he revealed to us that indeed I had lost 25 to 30% of my ability to hear in both ears. He recommended a pair of $1000 Hearing Aids, but when I tried them out all I could hear was the swooshing noise my ventilator makes as I breathe. I pretty much had to choose either breathing or hearing better, so I immediately opted for breathing. Much to my chagrin Jo Anne hesitated for some time weighing the options, but also finally agreed that maybe breathing was just a little bit more important than hearing well. I was very relieved!
However, I believe hearing well and especially listening carefully to others is almost as important as breathing. When I think of the people I enjoy visiting with the most it is invariably with those who really listen to me and seem genuinely interested in what I have to say. When I am in a crowded place like Costco for example, most people don't pay much attention to me but on occasion a random individual will approach me and say, "Wow, what an incredible wheelchair you have. How does it work?" And then they really listen and ask even more questions like "What happened to you anyway?" Whenever I have these experiences with strangers my life is enriched because they are validating me as a human being and a person of worth through their desire to hear and listen and understand.
Jo Anne is a good listener. She hears everything I say and many times things I don't say or didn't think I said. On occasion since my accident, we have had some heated conversations about various topics and just as I am about to make a winning argument she will reach over and pull my air hose off my throat -- end of conversation, end of empathetic listening -- end of life?
Many years ago I learned a great lesson about the importance of listening. I was teaching seminary at the Utah State Industrial School in Ogden, Utah, which in reality was a prison for juvenile delinquents who had run awry of the law.
One year while I was teaching there I would go to the maximum security unit once each day to teach a class to the boys incarcerated there because they were considered to be dangerous or a security risk. They wore blue jeans, white T-shirts, tennis shoes with no laces, and were extremely depressed and unhappy. Several guards watched them 24 hours a day from a glass booth strategically positioned so that the kids were never out of earshot or sight.
Almost all the boys attended my class, not because I was a great teacher, but because I didn't work for the state and therefore had no power over them. It was a diversion for them, to have someone like me visit them while they were doing their time in maximum security.
After a very simple lesson regarding fundamental principles of life like working instead of stealing, being honest instead of lying, respecting the sanctity of life, etc., I would stay another hour to do some individual counseling. The boys would frantically gather around me at the conclusion of our formal class saying "Brother Rushton, talk to me today, please talk to me!" I would try to give everyone a fair chance from day to day. I quickly learned however that what they were really saying, instead of "Talk to me, talk to me," was "Listen to me, please listen to me!" I would say very little during those counseling sessions but I would give them my undivided attention. It seemed to help. Their problems were so overwhelming I doubt that even Solomon could have had the wisdom to help solve them. In maximum security I learned how important it was and is to be truly listened to. I got the feeling that many of these disturbed young men had never truly been listened to by a significant adult in their lives. Sad to say, many of these young men died violent and premature deaths or ended up in the state penitentiary. No, they didn't live happily ever after because I listened to them, I hate to report, but at least for a few hours of their lives in maximum security, somebody truly listened to them and it was a soothing balm for their harrowed up souls if only for a brief period of time.
I think perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our spouses, children, and our friends, is to truly listen to them, giving them our undivided attention. Turning off the TV, looking away from our computer screen, closing the book or leaving an important unfinished task to listen to a loved one will convey love like few other things can.
In a wonderful talk that strikes a chord with me (Ensign, May 1991) about the importance of listening, Elder Russell M. Nelson, among other things counseled:
"A wise father once said, “I do a greater amount of good when I listen to my children than when I talk to them...The time to listen is when someone needs to be heard...Parents with teenage youth may find that time for listening is often less convenient but more important when young people feel lonely or troubled. And when they seem to deserve favor least, they may need it most...some couples seem not to listen to one another... If marriage is a prime relationship in life, it deserves prime time! Yet less important appointments are often given priority, leaving only leftover moments for listening to precious partners..."
Breathing or listening is a hard call. But just as breathing gives life to the body, so does listening give life to all the precious relationships we have in mortality.
Many years ago as I was lying in a hospital bed in the ICU of our local regional trauma center and learned that I had lost forever, in mortality anyway, the use of my physical body, I realized that the only thing that meant anything to me in that moment was the relationships I had with my family, my friends, and the Lord. Nothing else I had accomplished in my life, no worldly possession, no degrees or honors of men meant anything to me. If learning to listen better can strengthen all those relationships, how we ought to work at it! Are you listening?