Listening Disability

Doug McManaman

There is really only one proximate reason why teaching is very difficult today, and the reason is that people simply don't know how to listen anymore. This is true for adults as much as it is for young people. As Mortimer J. Adler says: "Listening, like reading, is primarily an activity of the mind, not of the ear or the eye." He points out that the most prevalent mistake people make about listening and reading is that they regard both as passively receiving rather than actively participating. And this is why people no longer know how to listen. For they no longer know how to be active.

We are a predominantly passive people, and much of this can be directly attributed to television and the overwhelming amount of information to be found therein. The internet will only add to the already existing problem--if it hasn't already. Ironically, it is the amount of information that induces a person to "turn off" the mind. Personally I have a very difficult time remembering names, and the reason is that I tend not to listen to the name given upon being introduced to a person for the first time. This habit began when I was seventeen and travelling with the Rudy Meeks Band. At the time I was being introduced to more people on a daily basis than I had ever expected to be. I was simply unable to remember all the names coming at me from all directions. So I learned to "tune out", smile, and look interested as I shook hands. And I am still very much in the habit of tuning out names when being introduced to a person for the first time, and habits, as we all know, are not easy to break.

Is this what is happening to our young people in terms of all the information that comes at them from every channel? Combine this with the amount of information on an ordinary computer connected to the internet, would not all this information tend to induce a despair, akin to the despair I felt as a seventeen year old--the despair of ever remembering all the names of those I had met and will meet?

There is no doubt that the technological quality of television has contributed a great deal to young people's inability to read well. Our young people are in many ways illiterate. Reading requires a great deal of effort. One must actively read the words; the imagination must then continually create the images to which the words correspond, and at the same time one must listen to what the author is saying through the narrative as a whole. And so one has to remember what was read in previous pages.

Compare this with television. There is no reading involved, the image is already created for us and so the imagination remains inactive, and one usually does not have to listen to what the author is saying because most often the author isn't saying anything at all. The long-term effect is an intellectual slumber. Most people are asleep intellectually, and if they are asleep intellectually, they are asleep morally (for love of the good presupposes a knowledge of the good) and spiritually (one cannot be awake to grace but asleep according to nature, for grace presupposes nature).

Teenagers are not any less intelligent than the teenagers of a previous generation. They simply can't read as well as teenagers of previous generation. They are less active intellectually, and reading is not a passive receiving, but an active participating. I have often told my students that in grade ten we were reading A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. No doubt it wasn't easy reading, but we made our way through it nonetheless. But an English teacher today wouldn't dream of assigning such a novel to a group of OAC students let alone grade ten. Dickens is out of the picture as far as high school goes. Moreover, I had only two channels to choose from as a teenager (CBC and CTV), and the picture was black and white. If I had the selection of channels and the picture quality that our teenagers enjoy today, I doubt very much that I would ever have opened a book during my high school years.

But listening is also an activity, not a passivity, and that is why students do not know how to listen. An example is in the area of film. None of my students were able to see the anti-Christian message in the film Pleasantville.

The movie is about a brother and a sister of a broken family who find that they have been magically transported into their television set as stars of a popular television show (a Leave It To Beaver type of show) entitled Pleasantville. They find themselves in a small American town, in the 50s, in which everything, including the people, is black and white. The film is a profoundly derisive commentary on conventional American life, which has stood for family, marital fidelity, commitment to children, and moral principle. David, has become Bud, is a very likeable and innocent teen who longed for a better world, which is why he always took refuge in a world that was opened up to him through the show Pleasantville. He knows all the episodes and characters.

His sister, who as a result of being transported has become Mary Sue (Bud's sister), is pretty, but profoundly oblivious to the world around her, selfish, immature, concerned only about her potential boyfriend, her popularity, and sex. She is an egoist, and she is sexually promiscuous. But she is the channel through which the people of Pleasantville will achieve freedom and deliverance from ignorance and innocence. Each time one of the black and white characters of the movie engages in an activity that has been traditionally regarded as immoral and sinful - actions of which they became aware through the influence of Mary Sue - their skin and their clothes would begin to acquire color.

Soon Lover's Lane is filled with cars in the backseats of which teenagers are engaging in sexual intercourse with one another. As this takes place, the trees begin to turn green, the roses red, and the world around them begins to acquire a beautiful hue. A married woman also begins to acquire a healthy skin color as she masturbates in the bathtub for the first time (this is after her sexually promiscuous daughter enlightened her about sex). Later she poses nude for a painting, which brings even more color to her life. Many of these scenes are accompanied by events that recall their biblical counterparts, for instance, when the woman in the bathtub reaches orgasm, the tree in the front yard bursts into flames, reminiscent of the burning bush of Sinai (the fire of which symbolizes the presence of God).

As a result of the gradual accumulation of associations of certain ideas, the audience is eventually convinced that the conservative call for a return to family values translates into a call to return to a period characterized by ignorance, narrow mindedness, intolerance, racism and injustice. Contemporary liberal America, to the contrary, is enlightened, open-minded, imperfect, but realistic, tolerant, non-violent, and non-racist.

There is more horror to this movie. But my only point is that young people don't seem to be able to detect a message in this that is first of all a lie (an unfair depiction of conventional America), not to mention one entirely contrary to the gospel and to everything the Church stands for. I contend that part of the reason is that they have not the habit of active listening.

Stigmata is another movie that, because of the relative slumber that has overtaken our young people, has molded their thinking unawares. This movie depicts the Church as a corrupt institution that is hiding a very important gospel written by Jesus (if I was listening correctly) in which he says that the kingdom of God is within us, and not in buildings of stone. The Vatican would rather commit murder than allow the world to learn of such a message.

In other words, the official Church is not interested in bringing the truth of the gospel to the world, but in maintaining its power and its wealth. And so an atheistic hairdresser from the United States receives the stigmata--for she is to be the channel through which the world is to receive this message that should founder the financial empire of the Roman Catholic Church. As the investigating priest returns to the Vatican to report on a bleeding statue in Brazil, he is propositioned by a group of prostitutes who, after discovering that their targeted client is a priest, offer him "the Vatican discount"

There is much more to this film that is sacrilegious, but once again my point is that my students remain oblivious to the specious lie that is the message. Perhaps this is a good thing if what is said here is true. But it is not a good thing, because while their slumber does not allow them to be critical of such film, it is partial enough to allow them to unknowingly appropriate a great deal that is contrary to the gospel and the express teachings of the Church. I cannot count how many times my grade nine students told me this year that one need not even believe in God in order to receive the stigmata, and that one need not go to Church because the kingdom of God is within us.

Moreover, their slumber prevents them from hearing some of the genuinely good messages that are contained in recent film. As another example, not one of my students was ever able to relate to me the fundamental message in the movie The Devil's Advocate (You reap what you sow; we determine our destiny by the choices that we make; that wealth does not bring goodness, but rather goodness brings wealth; that happiness does not consist in riches, but in virtue; that sin leads to personal destruction).

How then do we teach people to listen to God? How do we teach them to pray? We cannot pray if we are asleep. It is impossible. Prayer is an activity, not a passive receiving, for prayer is listening, and listening is an activity. As further evidence that even adults have not learned how to listen, consider how many people leave Mass immediately after communion, and how many more leave during the recessional hymn, that is, before the hymn has ended. In other words, the singing is simply background music--if not entertainment. Such people are unaware that at this point in the Mass, we are still in worship, actively praising and thanking God. Mass is entertainment, a show, a sacred performance, --one that falls well short of anything we might see at Roy Thompson Hall or the Air Canada Center.

It was Gertrude Stein who said:

Everyone, when they are young, has a little bit of genius; that is, they really do listen. They can listen and talk at the same time. Then they grow a little older and many of them get tired and listen less and less. But some, a very few, continue to listen. And finally they get very old and they do not listen anymore. That is very sad; let us not talk about it.

Perhaps this is why Jesus said: "unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." For we could easily replace the word 'listen' (in Stein's words above) with 'pray' and her words would ring truer. To pray is to listen; to listen is to pray.

It is my conviction that adults begin to listen less and less only because they have decided to no longer tolerate the unsightly specter of their own personal finitude. Each of us is profoundly limited. And Original Sin was really a decision to be more than human, that is, a decision to traverse human limitation. There is a sinful desire in all of us to be more than human, that is, there is a proclivity to reject our finitude. The child is at ease with his limits. But the adult is not. And so he stops listening. He refuses to grow. And so he stops praying. Such a person can pretend to pray, or appear to be praying. But one who will not listen to others out of a fear of his own finitude will not open himself up to God, who is infinite--or if so, only to a very limited degree; for in God's presence I experience my finitude more intensely than in any other situation. We can fix this by praying to ourselves while believing that we are praying to God.

One of my students, who recently attended a three-day retreat, told me that he found it spooky to be alone in the room at the retreat center where he stayed. All there is in the room is a bed, sink, and a desk. There is no phone, television, or radio. And so he could hear nothing from the outside, only something from inside, something that he wasn't all that used to hearing. He described the experience as "spooky", a term we use in connection with something haunted or ghostly.

He discovered that his own body was haunted. He was alone with himself, and he was certainly alone with God; for God does not abandon us to ourselves. What was he to do in this spooky silence? Listen. Listen perhaps to what his own spirit is trying to tell him. Interesting that a person can discover that he is a stranger to himself, that he does not know himself. Imagine the experience of looking in the mirror and not being able to recognize whom it is that is looking back at you. A material thing is not capable of perfect self-reflection, which is why we need a mirror to reflect a part of ourselves back to us. But the mind is immaterial, and as such is capable of perfect self-reflection. My student was entirely present to himself and was able, in the silence of that empty room, to see himself, and he felt that he was in the presence of a stranger.

There is a great deal of truth in the idea that the task of the Catholic teacher is to teach others how to listen. But is that something that can be realistically taught? Somehow I don't think so. I think the ability to listen, that is, to hear, is a grace. But just as God, who alone creates, calls us to co-create, so too does the author of grace call us to co-recreate. We are certainly called to labor and to goad others out of their slumber and call their attention to the two strangers who reside in the depths of their conscience. And we also must witness to what life can be like for those who cooperate with the grace that awakens us to a new and richer life.

It is literally true, even if it sounds rather comical, that God has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly, and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you. You will not easily find another like me, gentlemen, and if you take my advice you will spare my life. I suspect, however, that before long you will awake from your drowsing, and in your annoyance you will take Anytus' advice and finish me off with a single slap, and then you will go on sleeping till the end of your days, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place.

(Socrates, The Apology, 30e-31a)

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