Thursday, April 25, 2013

Words Joined At the Letters

You never know what you’ll learn on Facebook. Some of the things I’ve “learned” I’m already trying to forget, but I appreciate the thought-provoking insights that appear from time to time.

One I saw recently was the observation that the words “listen” and “silent” consist of exactly the same letters, obviously in different order. This is defined as an anagram, which is interesting in itself. But it seems the link between these two words goes beyond happenstance.

We live in a noisy world, from the relentless chatter on the radio and TV to messages bombarding us from various forms of real and virtual media. Even our cars and smart phones talk to us. To combat the noise, the solution seems to be generating more noise yourself – attempting to drown out the cacophony by creating substantial racket of your own. The auditory equivalent of fighting fire with fire.

The result, sadly, is like having 20 different radios playing 20 different stations at the same time – nothing less than sonic chaos. One of the foundational principles of communications is that you must have both a sender (or “encoder”) and a receiver (or “decoder”). But with everyone focused on sending their messages, no one seems to bother with the value of receiving messages from someone else.

To appreciate the sounds of the forest,
you need to appreciate the value of silence.
If you walk in a forest on a calm summer day, it’s amazing what you’ll hear if only you’ll listen. But the key to listening effectively is being willing to remain silent. If you create your own noise, you’ll miss the chirping of the birds, the rustling of the leaves, the bubbling of a brook, or the snapping of twigs as tiny feet scamper past.

We live in a society where decorum has been dispensed with. Obsessed with expressing our own views, bent on informing everyone about those things we’re for or against, we no longer find it necessary to extend the courtesy of listening. Thoughtfully considering what the other side has to say – or whether what they have to say might have even a smidgen of merit – who does that?

Recognizing this tendency in myself, years ago I adopted the following verse as a personal motto: “When there are many words, transgression is not avoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). A similar verse states, “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3).

Too often we fail to listen to others because we’re too busy framing our own pearls of “wisdom.” “Hurry up and quit talking – I have something to say!” To those of us beset with such a mindset, still another passage offers this advice: “He who answers before listening – this is his folly and his shame” (Proverbs 18:13).

Years ago Simon and Garfunkel wrote a pretty little song called “The Sounds of Silence.” It was a quiet, reflective, and hauntingly inspiring tune. We sure could use some sounds of silence today. Whether the subject is gun control, gay marriage, the economy, social reform or the issue du jour, maybe it’s time we all called a cease and desist to all of our verbal spewing and tried once again to cultivate the simplest of virtues: quietly and courteously listening.

It might not change our views, but we might actually learn something. And instead of diatribe, we could rediscover what it’s like to have a civil discussion.

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