Two (or More) To Tango – Revised Ed.

Agnolo_degli_Erri_,_Dominicain_prêchant

I thought I heard the captain’s voice
It’s hard to listen while you preach
Like every broken wave on the shore
This is as far as I could reach

– U2

Listening is the hardest thing we will never learn to do.

Why? Because we take ourselves far too seriously. We give too much weight to the things we have to say. We assume our contributions to be greater than they really are.

Take this very blog, for instance: I would like to think that, from time to time, I say something someone might find encouraging or useful. But in and of itself, my little corner of the blogosphere really isn’t that important. To me, the Toad’s adventures may be truly great, but to others–to quote Randy Jackson–they may be “just alright.” Especially if I ignore everybody else’s.

Blogs are an excellent example of the fact that we’re far more willing to be heard than we ever are to listen. Case in point: Do we “follow” others because we really want to know what they have to say, or are we merely fishing for followers of our own? Mea culpa. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that even fifty-fifty is an estimate hopelessly lacking in self-awareness. I find myself “following” a couple hundred people, and paying attention to maybe a third of them. So I “purge the list” and heave a sigh of relief, only to find myself three months later back in the same over-crowded boat.

What I’m saying is this: I have 950 followers. To think that means I have 950 readers is just absurd. How do I know this? Because truth be told, I ignore most of the people I supposedly “follow.” There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Each of my however many followers each follow however many people, and will have just as hard a time keeping up with me as I with them. Bilbo Baggins said it best: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” And for this I sincerely apologize.

The truth is, I would rather have a small group of dedicated readers, of whom I could be a dedicated follower and with whom I could have a meaningful conversation, than a neverending list of faceless, unidentified “followers” and “follow-ees” with whom I never ever interact. This is do-able. There are enough hours in the day for that, easily. As long as I remember why I ought to be here.

At the end of the day, though, I find I don’t always want a conversation. I often just want to hear myself talk. And then I wonder why no one’s responding to questions I’ve never bothered to ask. Even now, see? Here I am, preaching again. No matter how hard I try, the sermon must go on.

Here’s the problem: by definition, we are pushers of what we believe in, simply because we believe in it. There is nothing wrong with that, and there’s really no way around it. But there is a very fine line between arguing that what we believe is right, and arguing that unless our interlocutors accept the rightness of what we believe, they are wrong. Once we cross that line, dialogue is dead. We’ve decided we know, which is a dangerous decision to make. More importantly, we’ve decided we cannot know more, which means we’ve decided there’s nothing more we can be taught.

If that day comes, we might as well pack it in and head for home. If, as the soldiers of GI Joe used to say, knowing is half the battle, then learning is the other. If I refuse to do that, then I’m fighting with one hand tied perpetually behind my back. And I can’t learn unless I listen.

And sometimes it seems I’ll never learn.

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