Wisdom Listens // Mishika Narula

“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” – Dean Jackson

We have a problem—our problem is that we don’t know how to listen wisely.

In our individualistic society, we live within our own bubble. We often fail to recognize that we must not turn a blind eye on those struggling in the shadows of a light.

We usually assume that homeless individuals fall into the pit of poverty merely because of their lack of effort. As a volunteer with Santa Clara’s St. Vincent de Paul society, a group that offers hope to our neighbors that often feel forgotten by the community, my interactions with those residing in San Jose’s St. James Park revealed that the cause for their conditions lies in mental illnesses and loss of family support. Thrust into the streets without an uplifting hand, they must provide for themselves and their children. Many of them feel as though nobody is listening to them—and they’re right.

Homeless

There is a perception of the homeless that has interfered with attempts to help those in dire need. There are misconceptions born of ignorance: the homeless are criminals, most are drug addicts, and their conditions are a result of poor choices. It’s no surprise that they feel like others aren’t listening to their silent cries.

Our problem: we allow our minds to unconsciously derive meaning on our own behalf, gradually becoming more and more close-minded. American author David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address in 2005 at Kenyon College. He prompted several questions in his speech. The one that resonated with me: How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? He begs this question because he recognizes our narrow mindset:

A huge percentage of stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence (Wallace 2).

Wrong. So wrong.

Q: How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion?

A: We must stage a rebellion against our self-centered perceptions and unconscious impulses. These penetrate all of our lives without us even realizing it. We should strive for simple awareness, discipline, and for attentive consciousness. The best way to do so? By listening—actively listening. As in, completely opening yourself up to different ideas, perspectives, and approaches.

And that’s what CTW has allowed me to do.

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, targets meat lovers as the primary audience of his book. His approach is to present readers with stories, statistics, and research, to persuade them to eat meat responsibly (Foer). There are two ways we can perceive his work. The first, don’t read the book, or read and dismiss the content. Initially, my approach was to read and not overthink the material. I told myself, “Don’t be overly sensitive to the implication of industrial farming.” Why listen to Foer when gory details about where my food comes from and how it is produced were going to disrupt my eating habits? The second, understand and absorb his arguments—hear him out. And, ultimately, that’s the route I chose to take.

It’s all about listening. Listening to Foer’s words has not transformed me to opt for vegetarianism. It has, however, allowed me to throw aside all justifications people give for continuing to eat meat: it’s the diet intended for omnivores, some people become ill when they don’t eat meat products, and a vegetarian or vegan diet is a luxury that only some can afford. I don’t want to vote for animal suffering, environmental destruction, human labor violations, and looming viral epidemics. But I also can’t commit to completely omitting meat from my diet. I listened—and as a result I feel compelled to take some form of action. My contributions: support the most ethical companies—those that are gestation-crate-free producers, abstain from genetic manipulation, and do not engage in animal abuse—and share newfound knowledge on this topic with family and friends. According to Foer, my baby steps wouldn’t be classified as an ideal movement. But it’s a step nonetheless—a progression towards developing into a compassionate consumer. My initiative indicates my commitment to staying engaged towards Foer’s work. I have chosen to listen for a long time.

Like Foer’s work, Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, presents readers with two options. The first, live the massacre through the eyes of news reporters—blindly take their word for the events that occurred on April 20, 1999. The second, factor in information presented by investigators, doctors, the perpetrators’ journals, and the victims’ families to understand the Columbine shooting and the aftermath of the mass murder (Cullen). As a student enrolled in a critical thinking class, the second option was thankfully chosen for me—I was going to listen.

The news stations covering the Columbine shooting chose the opposite route. And that destroyed those residing in Columbine, Colorado. Newspapers and news channels grew fond of playing the blame game: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been bullied, the marines made Eric snap, Marilyn Manson is to blame, or the boys were influenced by violent movies and video games (Cullen). Media outlets handled the Columbine shooting in a way that by no means adapted to the idea of “listening.” All they did was formulate far-fetched responses to the most pressing questions of the investigation. Their actions toiled with the emotions of the victims’ friends and families—those in desperate need to decipher reality from myths.

columbine_pt3_1lg

In Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Marilyn Manson responds to allegations that his music helped inspire the massacre. The statement that resonated with me in his interview is his response to Moore’s question regarding what Manson would say to the kids at Columbine: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did” (Bowling for Columbine). He’s right—nobody was listening, everybody was talking.

And that same idea holds true today.

Fourteen years after September 11, 2001, the stereotype of the turbaned and bearded terrorist is deeply embedded in our social imagination. Americans tend to associate turbans with the man that orchestrated the attack on the twin towers: Osama bin Laden. And that’s a problem for the Sikh male community.

Despite being one of the world’s largest religions, Sikhism remains one of the most unknown traditions in America. Since the formative movements of the religion, Sikhs have maintained a physical identity that makes them stand out in public. Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Sikh identity is the turban. For a Sikh, wearing a turban asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values of the tradition, including compassion and peace (Singh). Many think otherwise—and they aren’t ready to listen to any other assertions.

Hate-graffiti

You see, we assume—we close ourselves off to absorbing new knowledge—and as a result, we give off a negative impression to the Sikh community. By pulling them aside for secondary screening at airports, staring at them in public settings, and making them the target of hate crimes, we are showing Sikhs that we aren’t interested in hearing about the principles of their faith. We’d much rather rub off our ignorance on others. We’ve already made up our minds: Sikhs are terrorists.

We are limited in our knowledge. Yet, many of us credit ourselves as experts on matters that we simply don’t know enough about. Had I adopted this attitude, I would have remained clueless about the horrors of factory farms. I would have believed that two unhinged American teenage misfits in Columbine, Colorado, went on a murderous rampage through their suburban high school as a result of years of bullying at the hands of jocks. I would have been really wrong. And it would have been incredibly difficult to curb my know-it-all tendencies. This holds true for many individuals who express strong opinions about everything. Argumentative attitudes hinder their ability to listen, learn, and then reflect on what they have learned.

Q: How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion?

A: Speak less, listen more.

And that’s what CTW has allowed me to do.


Bowling for Columbine. By Michael Moore. Dir. Michael Moore. 2002.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

Singh, Simran Jeet. “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Sikhism – OnFaith.” OnFaith. N.p., 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 02 June 2015.

Wallace, David Foster. This Is Water. New York: Mondo, 2004. Web. 6 June 2015.

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