One of the greatest daily gifts I receive in the autumn evenings is the ability to sit on my small patio and watch the final day — flutterings of birds and the night emergence of bats. Bats buzz my head if I sit still long enough. Perhaps they are curious about the unusual echo-location vibe I send their way. Fleshy, big, breathing. I silently urge them on, hoping that they’ll eat as many mosquitoes as possible.
It takes a certain quality of quiet to hear bat wings brush by.
These bats teach me. Their command of the air currents and their accuracy of locating airborne food provokes awe in me. Their laser-focus through listening helps them hone in less than a second. They move like swifts and swallows and flap like hummingbirds, but have even greater maneuverability. And how cool is it that they perch upside-down? They are mammals. They are regional pollinators for tropical fruits and chocolate. They can fly over 100 miles per hour. They chatter when they are in their colonies (I’ve heard them). They provoke screaming and arm-waving in the movies or sometimes in one’s home. Some are endangered. They are associated with vampires via their mutual toothiness. Bats carry all kinds of interesting characteristics and mythologies, and I get to watch them hunt for food every still night in the summer and fall.
Ah, to be able to super-control my movements and to hone in with the concentration of a bat. Listening with a purpose, responding immediately and accurately, eating all I wanted with plentiful supply — my respect abounds.
The level of listening and response, accomplished by sending out experimental sonic waves to measure distance between cry and echo, instructs us human beings. I remember as a child experimenting with echoes against cliffs and rocks. I was amazed to hear my voice sound off several times; that’s what I sound like? Today, in my coaching work, I am trained to listen deeply for echoes of things not said, finding messages through non-verbal cues and responses to a meaningful question. This kind of listening takes tremendous hours of practice on top of intentionality. It requires getting distractions out of the way and tuning in to a relational field that is between me and client(s), not visible, but real. Some people call this state “in the zone.” Perhaps it is the path of the echo between us.
I wonder what this world would be like if we all intentionally listen with such intense focus. I don’t think we’re capable of doing so every moment of every day because the very act of honing in takes a great deal of energy. However, listening deeply seems to be a waning skill in the culture of soundbites and quick messaging. When someone feels listened to without judgment or advice, she or he feels validated, believed, and honored. If human beings could feel these things regularly, we might find a way to be less resentful, reactive, and polarized. Our egos would settle down. Our self-worth would rise. Our sense of possibility and adventure might be valued more highly.
Deep listening is nothing new. Biblical stories of Jesus show his ability to speak to the unspoken, the Torah tells stories that impart meaning not explicitly stated but require a “listening” stance for the underlying message. Sacred texts in all religious traditions and spiritual practices of any sort require a listening that doesn’t concentrate only on information but also on interpretation and agile, with appropriate response to the context at hand.
My concern is that we are losing a culture of deep listening, and therefore, deep connection. I hope for self-correction beyond the individualistic mindfulness practices so that we hone in on each other’s stories, listening others into wholeness. For me, that’s a clear spiritual calling.
You know, I wonder what a lightning bug sounds like to a bat. What happens when bats eat lightning bugs? After all, we are what we eat. And we choose how and to what we listen.
Rev. Dr. Lisa Withrow is professor of leadership studies at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, East Ohio Conference.