Listening as Imperfect Resistance

Ever since the election last year, I have wanted to resist. In my introversion and general lack of political activist skill, this has been a mixed bag of efforts. I have attended protests. I have called my congressional representatives. I have signed petitions and read articles. I have prayed with undocumented people. I have also felt anxiety, inertia, and helplessness in spades.

But the other thing I have done—the thing which feels both necessary and wrong and Biblical and cowardly and brave and complicit—is I have tried asking questions of people I know and love who voted for President Trump about why.

Here are all the reasons I feel conflicted about this:

I wonder if engaging in conversations with those who are completely satisfied with their convictions does anything at all.

I want to argue.

I want to correct.

I wonder if listening to those who say, for instance, that Islam is a uniquely dangerous faith is only furthering the problem. (Yes, I pushed back. I am not sure I did it hard enough).

Even typing that last sentence fills me with dismay. Am I making things worse?

I watched a video a few months ago about a Danish politician who met with people who had sent her hate mail. It was both tremendously inspiring and disturbing. I’m part of a group that works towards racial reconciliation, Be the Bridge to Racial Unity, and a lot of the members of color pointed out that this is too much to ask of minorities. Too much to ask that they sit and explain their humanity to other people who question it.

Part of me feels like me having these conversations might save a person from color from having to do so. Part of me thinks I’m whistling in the dark.

I don’t want to debate things that should not be debatable. Sometimes the discussion should end.

I cannot tell, honestly, if my attempts to ask kind, curious questions of people I vociferously disagree with falls into that category.

Still, though, I come back to the verses that we need to be slow to speak and anger and quick to listen.

And I come back to the fact that listening—really, truly, sacrificially listening—has been the key to changing something dear to me: my marriage.

My husband and I have been married for fifteen years. We got some great therapy last year, and the biggest thing I learned—the thing that changed everything—was to listen.

I’m not a bad listener. But listening in marriage is kind of an Olympic-level event. It’s hard to listen well when you’re hurt or angry or defensive and when there’s fifteen years of baggage to adjudicate. Which (spoiler alert) might have applied to us.

My husband and I would disagree about something, and then immediately fall into a debate. The debate would get louder and more heated. One of us would say something that hurt the other person, and then we’d be arguing about that too. It wasn’t a helpful cycle.

Our therapist taught us to stop debating and start listening. Rather than immediately starting a back-and-forth, she taught us to pause and let one person speak until they felt adequately understood. She described it this way: the person listening was like a journalist, asking questions to gain understanding until they could really repeat back what was said in a way that felt accurate to the speaker. Only after the person felt understood did you switch roles.

Hypothetically, If I said something like, “You never wear red ties anymore and that means you don’t love me,” my husband learned to stop, and try to repeat back what he heard me saying, no matter if it seemed that ridiculous.

“So when I don’t wear my red bow tie, you feel unloved?”

“Yes,” I’d say. “Red accessories fosters intimacy and they are a basic sign of respect.”

Then he would investigate my feelings a la Woodward and Bernstein to get to the bottom of my problems involving his neckwear.

This sounds kind of dumb at first. (Well yes, the tie thing, but also the idea that he needed to parrot back what I said). I mean, it’s like a kindergarten exercise: Repeat after me, class. My husband and I have ears.

Except you’d be surprised how often my ears or his ears did not work well. I would hear part of what he said, or not all of it. Or I heard the surface request, but did not pick up on the underlying history of hurt. Or I heard anger and he was not angry. Or I heard accusation when in fact he felt wounded.

It turns out listening is complicated.

It was the weirdest thing when we practiced it well. I would name something that hurt me, my voice shaking. When my husband looked at me and repeated back my words accurately, when he asked more questions and repeated back my answers, it felt like a wound cleansed of venom. It hurt, sure, but it no longer felt poisonous. I felt bonded to him, grateful to be heard, and strangely ready to hear his take.

And the more we truly listened to each other’s words, the easier it became to believe the best of each other. To recognize our disagreements and act to resolve them or come to a compromise. To feel like we were on the same team.

Sometimes, when I was really angry, it felt really hard to listen like this. It felt wrong, unfair, maddening. Thankfully my husband met me halfway; he worked to deepen his empathy and hearing as much as I did.

I have also done this kind of listening in relationships that did not go well. I have listened to people who have been unwilling to hear. I have met their defensiveness with vulnerability. I have been kind.

And they turned around and emotionally backhanded me.

And even then, the listening was worth it. The empathy was worth it. Not because it magically transformed the relationship, or healed the other person, but it let me know that I had done everything I could to make things right and I needed to stop trying.

Listening well revealed—in some ugly ways, unfortunately—that the person was really more interested in manipulation and control than in dialogue. When you are kind to people and they spit on you, it isn’t fun, but it is clarifying.

Afterwards, I walked away with my dignity intact, and with a clear idea of what I could expect from the person in the future (note: it’s very little).

When I look around our country right now, I see people assuming the worst of each other. I see it in myself, in the politicians I support, and in the ones I don’t. All of us assuming craven motives, terrible intentions, conspiracies, corruption, negligence, or malfeasance.

I’m not saying those assumptions are always wrong. Corruption is a real thing. Racism is a real thing.

But I think the complicated story of our politics, racism, hatred, and shame is this: there are fewer psychopaths out there than we think. More common is a person who has argued themself into a pit of narcissism, intolerance, indifference, or callousness because of shame and fear. They don’t question their assumptions because doing so is difficult.

They will tell you over and over that their intentions are honorable, good, and kind. They will sincerely believe it. And they will go on hurting and oppressing and marginalizing people because good intentions don’t actually guard us from sin.

I count myself in that class of person: a person full of good intentions who sometimes is blind to where those intentions lead me.

And when I think of my marriage, the only thing that helped me question my assumptions was to actually hear what my husband said.

Which brings me back to listening as resistance. When these political conversations have gone well, I have learned something about the other person that surprised me. I have seen nuance in their positions that gave me hope that we could come closer together in our views. I have been convicted of my own blindness and assumptions. I have been challenged to do more reading and learning. I have been able to share facts that felt pertinent. I have demonstrated that I don’t arrive my opinions lightly.

Sometimes the conversations have shown me that a person is not worth engaging with because they are not curious or interested in nuance or new ideas.

That’s not a bad thing to know either.

I do not feel comforted by these conversations. They do not convince me that all I need to do is listen and that will be enough. Sometimes, they have unsettled me more than brought peace. I am not sure they are the right thing to do for everyone.

But they have reminded how deeply human we all are. How prone to error. And they remind me that to keep loving people, to invite them to trust me, I have to actually hear what they say.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri

Writer at A Little Yes
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri

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  • Jo Leatherland

    Thank you Heather for your insightful words. I too try to listen to others and hear where they are coming from. It is hard. For me the part I am taking away is that it doesn’t always work and therefore it is ok to walk away.

    • I hear you, Jo. Sometimes, the conversation isn’t productive to continue. I’ve had to learn to let go as well. I’m trying to not use that as an excuse to keep quiet overall. I’d rather risk a difficult conversation than go along to get along.

  • DebSteve Rhoads

    Thank you for this thoughtful article… and sharing the way you have used “listening well” in your marriage. We married folks can use frequent tune ups on our “listening ears!” I also agree that a willingness to really listen to others with opposing viewpoints is critical, especially for those of us who follow Christ. However, we need to be willing to hear what they have to say, but not feel compelled to “correct” their thinking.

    Some people actually have given much thought and prayer to their convictions. The longer I am on my life journey, the more I realize- and accept- that not everyone is going to share my way of thinking, but it doesn’t mean I have to walk away from them. If they are not open to embrace my opinion, does that negate me from sharing the love of Christ with them? We may be too quick to dismiss people from our lives on the basis of their beliefs and frames of reference. I think the Lord asks us to be a little more longsuffering, and has given us the fortitude to love our enemies. I really do get what you’re saying…I have just been overwhelmed by the prevalent attitude in our current culture of, “If they don’t make you happy, you don’t need them in your life. Walk away, and don’t look back.”
    That saddens me. Thanks again for your words…they definitely are thought-provoking.

    • I’m with you, Deb–I think walking away is a last resort, and pretty much limited to situations where the person is causing direct harm to us, or if by staying in relationship, we cause harm to other people. “Being happy” isn’t that important, long-term; what matters to me is integrity, wholeness, and being submitted to God. I have, and seek out, relationships where people disagree with me on faith or politics. I draw boundaries in relationships where people have hurt me and don’t repent; they will injure me again if given the chance. That doesn’t mean I necessarily stop speaking to them, but I avoid vulnerability and set firm limits.
      The trickier area is evaluating whether another person’s beliefs are causing direct harm to _others_. In my view, racist views aren’t okay to sweep under the rug, ignore, or ‘live and let live’ on. I’m trying to keep dialogue open while being clear that I vociferously disagree. I’m not sure that’s the right stance for everyone–a lot of people of color I know have just stopped engaging with those that gaslight them, doubt their humanity, or engage in other micro-aggressions. I think that’s sanity-saving. But as a white person, I want to maintain influence with people in my community. I’m trying to figure out the right line for me. Praying we all have discernment on these tough issues.

      • DebSteve Rhoads

        It’s a difficult road to walk, for sure. Thank the Lord for His grace, mercy, and the leading of His Spirit. Be blessed, Heather!

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  • Torontino

    I venture saying that many, perhaps even most of democrats’ followers are not aware that this is the communist party, that globalism is a form, perhaps the most vicious form, of nazism.

    That not everyone enrolled in Nazism were in favor of killing others but the problem was the ideology. If you are a Muslim that was raised to hate Jews and Christian and thought it was your obligation to kill them…that ideology is problematic.

    Are all Muslim like that? Of course not. Recently a Muslim was put to death because he said it was not right for hte prophet Mohamed to marry an 8 years old. If we understand Christianity we understand that we are to be set apart.

    There is no racism in America, more than in any other country. Many inocent democrats do not understand that the racist card is a weapon to destroy a nation, that the fake news is part of a conglomerate to bring globalism here and have the UN to take over the country.

    We all hear that TRump is a racist. I ask of any that thinks that way to bring one evidence of it, not adjectives and slurs and hate speech, proof, actions. Who started the KKK? The democrats. Who were the people against the slaves? The democrats. Who eulogized the funeral of a major KKK leader: Obama.

    I can only recommend that a Christian should pray hard and learn to listen to God’s heart and understand that democratic party is a misnomer, it is the communist party willing to kill and destroy and if anyone has any doubts, just look at the devastation they brought during the inauguration of a president that was democratic elected. Just look at the peaceful name they give to a terrorist act: resistance.

    If anyone resist a president that was democratic elected in a democracy, the legal term for this is terrorism, not resistance, but just like the serpent in the garden, this party is extremely deceitful and continues to fuel hatred and place whites agains blacks and to support terrorists organizations.

    I have a good friend who is a Muslim. They have a thriving business and so, they can’t get an extended visa even for about 2 months. Yet, when at a dentist office, noticing that only one member of a family spoke limited English, I thought to myself, I can use someone to cook me a homemade meal and do some pick up at my house.

    I asked the young man if anyone in his family of 10 would be interested, mainly the woman because many of them could cook and clean, i thought. To which he replied that they didn’t need a job. I argued trying to convince him that it would be good to work at my house but he told me the amount of money they received…wow…I asked how they got here…everything paid by the obama administration, only requirement was a donation to the most extremist terrorist society, even one dollar would do.

    They have house, food, medical and even a translator when our veterans die on the streets from cold and malnutrition. Can anyone ignore this? Can anyone be unaware of the plot here? CAn anyone truly believe that obama gave over 100 billion dollars to Iran to prevent them to use nuclear weapon when this was not even part of the agreement?

    Do you see that Iran was part of the plot to bring America down? And so is racism. I encourage anyone that wants to see this from a religious point of view to check Pastor DArrel Dummas who will give you scriptures that supports the republican point of view.

    I received a twitter from the Pope telling me that we all should be compassionated toward the foreigners (there was not enough space to quote to him what the bible says about foreigners ‘camping’ on your land and what to do with them, or space to call him “your eminence’, nor desire…I simply asked him that if he was sincere, he had many palaces and represented the richest country in the world: the vatican and asked him to open his doors, his palaces and invite the immigrants to live in….never heard from him again….

    Shummer cries for the immigrants, never a tear for the woman assassinated in San Francisco and many others.

    Allow me to ask you a question: Who do you invite at your home for Christmas, the homeless, the murders, the thieves…What makes America responsible for the tragedies that Hillary Clinton and Obama with Soros have created in the Middle East. They should respond to that, not America.

    There’s no racism in America, except hte racism that fake news had created and fomented, except for the racism that exists in every nation. In some places , white people are hated? Never heard of it? America is just about the top ranking country that started a campaign about white people.

    Yes, people disagree, but democracy is not an opinion, is a partisan ideology that departs so much from God’s commandments (just look how they break windows and put cars on fire, how they are developing ‘special’ human beings in laboratory without gender orientation and numbed to the most basic feelings), that I find it impossible to reconcile this segment of the population with a true obeying heart to God’s commandments.

    In that day it will be easier for Sodom and Gomorra (I guess I missed an ‘h’) to be pardoned.

    To be honest, I’ve been praying for you, that God will guide you where He wants you to be and that He will open your eyes about the democratic party. Let’s see what He does. I love your columm, and to be honest, I’m not placing this here to have you published this, I’m placing this here, specifically for you, and even though I’m always pressed by time, to me ,. it is worth taking the time to share those thoughts with you and above all to continue to pray that ‘something’ or someone will uncover the pitfalls of the democratic party.

    God bless

  • Torontino

    This is a very insightful article. While a marriage may, or may not, be worth saving…I like to remind myself that Jesus said that few would be willing to die for a good man but none for a bad one, that He died for His friends and “you are my firends if you obey my commandments”. While His death covers everyone, not everyone will benefit from it, 2/3 will be lost.

    I think the love Jesus was referring to was ‘agape’ love. The love that makes you help your enemy, like the Samarian did, but not the love to be cosie with the enemies of God (we are asked to depart from them),so, being the insightful person you are and being in this journey that calls you to help others and sharing with all of us what helps to free you from anxiety, and may help me, as well, I think that if a political view feels too unconfortable to embrace, may be it is a sign that the atmosphere is heavy (even though they may be republicans, or people who voted for Trump, who in my book are consistent) you too have to protect your heart, to a certain extent, I guess.