Taking the Time to Listen

frogOnce there was a frog living in a well. One day, quite unexpectedly, a second frog found his way into the well. “Where did you come from?” The first frog asked his visitor. “Oh, I came from a great lake beyond these earthen walls,” came the answer. 

“Really!” said the first frog. “What is it like to live in a lake? Is it as nice as my well?” The visiting frog laughed. “There is no comparison!” he said. Then he began to describe vast acres of water; how the sun would hang in an endless sky for hours each day, not for just a few minutes directly overhead. He spoke of bright colors, creatures large and small, and the near infinity of the outside world. 

The frog that had lived his entire life in the well did his best to listen, but finally said to himself, “Of all the liars I have known in my lifetime, this guy is the worst and most shameless. Who would ever believe that such a place that he is describing can exist?”

That’s a story by the late Jesuit mystic and priest, Anthony De Mello. As a masterful collector and teller of stories, he had a knack for revealing to his readers what they already knew, but not in a condescending, “Captain Obvious” sort of way. Rather, he was like a pop-up reminder on a digital calendar, through story and parable not letting us forget what was important.

And what do we know about the two frogs in Anthony’s story? We know that we should not judge either of them too harshly. Like the simple well-dweller, we have all been inexperienced and naive to the larger world. And like the new arrival from the lake, haven’t we all gushed about our “enlightenment?” How could we not? For we all speak the truth as we have experienced it.

Herein, I think, lies somewhat of an answer to much of the division in our society: Every person speaks, acts, believes, and engages others based on his or her own personal experience. That is, each person has a view of the world that has been shaped largely by his or her conditioning and circumstances, circumstances that most have no control over.

We get into trouble, it seems to me, when we demand that everyone else see things from our personal perspective. When we expect others to come to our religious, political, and social conclusions when others have not lived our lives, and we have not had their experiences, it is a recipe for polarization. We must take the time (yes, it takes time) to stop, learn, appreciate, and listen.

Because some of us live in a well; some in a lake, and others in a river or at sea. But we all share the same eco-system, as it were. We would do well to remember that – for we already know it – lest our unyielding demands of others poison the water for all of us.

3 thoughts on “Taking the Time to Listen

  1. Daniel Owen says:

    Your article captures a critical Idea, and the article doesn’t tale 499 pages to explain it:

    Daniel Kahneman is a Noble Prize-winning psychologist, whose career has mostly focused on an individual’s judgment and choice. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he presents a psychological representation of the mind that explains the source of an individual’s “view of the world”. That representation includes two subsystems, labeled “System 1” and “System 2”:
    “The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it. The model is constructed by associations that link ideas of circumstances, events, actions and outcomes that co-occur with some regularity, either at the same time or with in a relatively short interval. As these links are formed and strengthened, the pattern of associated ideas comes to represent the structure of events in your life, and it determines your interpretation of the present as well as your expectations of the future.” (p. 71)

    System 1 is the fast part of thinking fast and slow, which means that, “Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.”(p. 97) Consequently, “. . . the representation of the world that System 1 generates is simpler and more coherent than the real thing.” (p. 82)

    Kahneman also describes System 2, which is the slower system: “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. . . The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.” (p.21)

    System 1 operates automatically and is always on. It delivers what we sense and feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning, a sense of how the world works. System 2 must be consciously engaged. The results of system 1 are indispensable–but dangerous, precisely to the extent that we confuse them with reality itself.

  2. Teresa A Pipper says:

    Thank you. It seems no one listens to each other anymore. We wait our turn to speak, not hearing the message, not to empathize or to understand, but to rebut what the other person is saying.
    I pray that God gives me that wisdom to shut my mouth and open my ears and heart to hear what others are saying.

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