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Listening

by Paul Hawken

Published in the Spring 2002 issue of Orion magazine



Imagine an America that had been listening to the voices in the Middle East. Not interviews with military consultants on CNN, but traumatized Palestinian children, the Israeli whose family disappeared in a bomb blast, the castigated Afghan widow, the Iraqi father who cannot find or afford medicine for his daughter. What if we had been listening for years, no, let’s say decades? What if we had listened to the people who pay the price for oligarchic oil politics, instead of those benefiting from it? What country would we be? How much oil would we use? How stingy would our foreign aid be? Who would we believe in the media?

But we can’t truly listen to people far away. The people we can listen to are the people nearby who will talk to us. They are our children, neighbors, coworkers, spouses, or the sorrowful person we avoid on the street. We can practice by squatting on our haunches on a cold night and listening to a homeless person. The whole story.

What happens when we don’t listen? The main reason medical patients file malpractice suits is not because they believe their physicians are incompetent, but because they feel the doctors don’t listen. The failure of communication leads to disappointment, anger, and frustration. That can lead to hostility and arrogance on the part of the practitioner, which inflames the patient’s anger further. If this keeps up, the patient reaches for a lawyer.

The resentment that results when people are not listened to, especially those in need or suffering arises everywhere. Listening is as different from hearing as a live animal is from a fur coat. Listening is generosity. Listening is consciousness. Listening is alive. Functionally, listening allows us to see a world we don’t know, to understand experiences we haven’t had, to reframe or drop a belief long held. It creates distinctions and it is from these distinctions that we create new possibilities.

The language of war is the language of conflation. Concepts and distinctions are fused, nuances erased. Conflated, bellicose words masquerade as truth and dodge uncertainty. There is only good and evil. There is only us or them. Alternatives disappear, possibilities sink from sight.

Listening is the opposite experience. It doesn’t judge, know, or argue. When we listen to people, our own language softens. Listening may be the cardinal act of giving. It is a silent quality.

I think it is the source of peace.

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Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and the author of The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism. In 2002, he wrote a book entitled Uprising about the growing worldwide movement resisting corporatization of the commons, which was published by Viking Penguin in 2003.

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