Cricket can be a very good listener. Even in a dead sleep, limbs flopping in midair, she can hear certain words (like: walk, chicken, go, out, and, of course, pee) and be up on her feet and stretching within half a second.
She listens to the sounds of her people sleeping, and shifting, to determine when the waking up drama is about to take place, so she can mark it with screeching and scratching and growling and jumping. She listens to the outdoor sounds, to make sure terrorists are not hiding in plain sight, pretending to be birds or squirrels. She often listens by sniffing, hearing the story of her sister’s visit to the vet by smelling her ears, armpits, and, of course, her butt.
Listening like a dog means actively looking for the information someone wants to give you. It’s not about being nice, or friendly, or polite; it’s about tying an imaginary thread between you and the talker and letting them feel the tug each time you understand what they’ve said.
My rabbi went to Israel this summer with a group of other liberal rabbis, and they spent a week with different groups of Israelis and Israeli Arabs, and at the end of the trip they spent three days in Jerusalem, hearing from Palestinians from East Jerusalem, during the height of the Gaza war. These speakers had to spend hours travelling, because of the heightened security measures, but they felt it was important enough to come and tell their personal stories to this group of American Jews. The rule was that the listeners had to wait until the end of the presentation to speak, and even then, only speak in the form of a question, to try to understand better where the speaker was coming from, rather than to argue with them.
That way, even if you hear something early on that’s provocative, or that you think is untrue, or unfair, you don’t interrupt. You keep listening, in case there’s something for you to learn. And isn’t there always something to learn? Maybe you learn why the other person believes as they do, or why they are willing to go through the difficult journey just to speak to you. There can be a moment of understanding, and compassion, and even progress, through dialogue. Not total agreement by any means, but maybe one or two points of connection will come through.
It is taking me forever to learn how to listen when listening is difficult. Patience was never my strong suit. And to be fair to me, people keep saying the craziest things and I feel like it is my job to set things straight so that the world won’t tilt out of control.
Butterfly is a much better listener than I am. She very rarely takes offense. She listens to her sister’s diatribes with curiosity and patience. She even sniffs an ear to see if there’s more to find out. She uses a tactic I’d call whole body listening. You can see her ears lift and rotate, and her nose twitch, as she focuses her gaze on you. But even more, you can feel her listening, feel the heat of her body leaning against you to see what mood you are in, or her tongue licking your palm to let you know that she’s paying attention.
I can probably skip the licking part, but the rest of her listening skills seem worthy of imitation. Now, if only I could get my ears to lift up and rotate the way hers do…