Lunch-time was often a struggle for my mental capacities. Rarely did a day go by when my vibrant nine-year old, just back from school, failed to enlighten us with long and winding tales of girly social interactions. Rarely did I manage to follow them all the way through. In fact, I usually lost the story line somewhere in Act One.
It’s not that I did not try. I know the importance of being a highly responsive parent for the overall confidence of our children. I even oohed and aahed where I deemed appropriate and interjected “Oh dear’s” and “Oh no’s” every little while. Of course, I sometimes got it wrong, which meant that she simply went back and explained the whole saga again, giving me ample hints about when to express my horror. My poor baby!
Human Need to Be Heard
To help me along the way, I even reminded myself of the very real human need to be heard. I thought about my own frustration when my husband nods through my monologue while glued to his iPhone. I thought too of the ladies at the beauty parlor who pour the details of their entire lives out to whomever will listen. I’ve been guilty of that a couple of times. I thought of taxi drivers who have admitted that passengers sometimes unload all their troubles from the back seat as if yearning for someone, anyone, to lend an ear.Despite all good will though, boy did I find it hard! Yes, it was intense keeping track of the changing characters and conversations within the acts. But actually grasping their motives and behaviors was more than I could handle. I would end up mentally exhausted to say the least, and still without a clue. Yet when I would watch my other kids engrossed in the story or rolling with laughter towards the end, I could not help but wish that I had been a part of it. What was I possibly doing wrong?
White Noise in the Head
So I began to observe them. I watched them caught in the moment, their bodies turned towards their little sister as if every part of them needed to listen. Like sunflowers to the sun, they inhaled the pictures that she spun in their minds and danced with her in the virtual world they constructed together. I realized then that I had been listening with the earplugs in. The white noise in my head of to-do lists, dinner menus, incomplete projects, even past conversations, was blanketing out all but the pitch of her voice, disturbing my mental commentary and leaving me in complete disarray.
Shutting out this white noise is not always easy, and those of us who struggle with mindfulness, will acknowledge the power of the personal tormentor in our minds. Yes, it is the natural consequence of two of evolution’s master strokes: language abilities and a higher level consciousness.What Am I Missing?
But I do sometimes wonder at its self-proclaimed right to shut out all sounds, including the ones that I would like to hear. Like the rustling of trees, the twittering of birds, the humming of life, and yes, the stories of my child. I wonder too about its power to numb out capacities within me that I would like to hang onto and nurture. I fear that there is a part of me that I am perhaps losing in the process of mindlessness.
Evolution has a strange way of creating upward spirals of actions and emotions that benefit social bonding. Given that we are social animals and that our happiness and well-being depend on the relationships we nurture, it makes sense that what benefits others will benefit us too. We see the positivity resonance in acts of charity and altruism, in hugs and smiles, in jokes and laughter. We find happiness in making others happy because we become more. More fulfilled, more resilient, more healthy. The new mammalian vagus that evolved around 200 million years ago is proof of that. This nerve intertwines its way from our hearts to our facial muscles, including the middle ear, so that when we listen fully, we heal with the same balm that soothes the person being heard.
Regaining the Capacity to Listen
Yes, my fears were correct. I was losing the ability to empathize with my child. But it now dawned upon me that in filtering out the sounds from the outside, I had damaged my capacity to listen, even to myself. Empathizing meant to be vulnerable, to open myself up. I had gotten used to living in the whirlwind of my own intelligence that blocked my ears and comforted me with preconceived biases and judgments that made me feel at home.So I opened myself up to truly listen, with the whole of myself. As I did so, I began to hear my own voice. I thought then of the little 9-year-old within all of us, begging to be heard, and yet continually denied access by the big bully that has claimed our minds for its own. As I heard its fears and dreams, I realized that finally, I had truly come home.
This new insight worked wonders for lunch hour. The stories did not change. But I embraced the opportunity of entering her world through her beany eyes. In so doing, I realized that it takes a lot more energy not to listen than to completely open yourself up and take the exhilarating journey into the unknown.
Bowlby, J. (1983). Attachment: Attachment and Loss Volume One. 2nd edition. New York: Basic Books.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.
Porges, S., Doussard-Roosevelt, J., & Maiti, A. (1994). Vagal tone and the psychological regulation of emotion. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(2/3), 167-86.