I’m posting this morning’s teaching to the blog. Thoughts, comments, and observations are welcome, especially by those who try the active listening the teaching suggests. With aloha,
The cover of the book caught Sara’s eye and she picked it up. Bright blue with white lettering, it stood face out on the recent arrivals shelf at City Lights Books in San Francisco. We were in California visiting family and knocking around the city as we do every summer. And City Lights has become an unofficial tradition, a bookstore that we can’t resist for its history with the Beat writers, its left of center sections on politics and cultural studies, and its third floor poetry room with worn rocking chairs and hand-painted signs that encourage browsers to “Have a Seat and Read a Book.” So we were walking the shelves at City Lights when Sara began to leaf through the book with the bright blue cover and laugh. After some time with it, she handed it to me. I looked at the title—Men Explain Things to Me—and the author—Rebecca Solnit—and started reading the opening essay right then and there.
Rebecca Solnit has been one of my favorite essayists for years. Her blend of anger, humor, critical intelligence, and lived experience appeal to both the head and the heart. Yet her essay “Men Explain Things to Me” was unusually powerful. I stood in the aisle of the bookstore turning the pages, laughing as Sara had before me and muttering “Amen”s and “true that”s. And I’d like to share with you a truth from Solnit’s essay that followed me out of the store, onto the streets of San Francisco, and all the way back home to Charleston. Honestly, it is a truth that has changed my perception every day since.
Rebecca Solnit begins the book with a story about attending a party at an affluent home in Aspen, Colorado some years ago. The owner of the home was a man of renown with whom she began to speak near the end of the evening. The man told Rebecca that he had heard she was an author. When she replied that she was, he asked what she had written. She told him of a recent subject before he interrupted to ask if she had heard of another new book written on the subject. It was supposed to be a wonderful book, he’d read about it in the Times, and so on. As the man kept talking about this book, Rebecca’s friend Sallie, who had been listening in, tried to interject. “That’s her book,” Sallie said, motioning to Rebecca. But the man just kept talking. “That’s her book,” Sallie repeated, three or four times according to Rebecca until it dawned on the man and his face registered some embarrassment. For a moment he stopped talking, but then started up again. Rebecca and Sallie quietly walked away. It was an awkward moment, of which Rebecca writes, “I like incidents of that sort, where forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow. . .” “Men explain things to me,” she continues, “and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.”*
Reading Solnit’s essay I laughed and shook my head for two reasons. The first is that as a somewhat soft-spoken man, I have had the experience of being talked over many times. But the second reason I laughed was much more confessional and much more important. As I read Solnit’s description of the boorish man, I recognized a near perfect description of myself just two months ago at the church picnic. A lovely and intelligent woman was trying to share something with me when I eagerly spoke over her, offering my opinion on, get this, I book I hadn’t finished reading. Later that same day I realized that I had been a complete heel, but I’m afraid the damage had already been done. I had the chance to listen to someone and to learn something and I missed it. All I learned is that sometimes I can be a real fool. So for the rest of this teaching, I’d like to ask that you consider that I am not a man explaining things to you, but I am a man sharing with you what I have learned by listening to women, starting with Solnit.
A few days after reading Solnit, we stumbled across a piece on the Huffington Post that underscored everything she had written. In her article “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn,” Soraya Chemaly brings to light the fact that what Solnit experienced is experienced by countless women and girls around the world. “I routinely find myself,” she says, “in mixed-gender environments (life) where men interrupt me. Now that I’ve decided to try and keep track, just out of curiosity, it’s quite amazing how often it happens.”* Chemaly goes on to offer many examples of the ways women’s voices are suppressed by being routinely ignored, discounted, or talked at or over. This teaches young women something very untrue about themselves: that their voices do not count as much, are not as valuable as, a man’s. It starts in childhood, she writes, when parents are shown to interrupt girls “twice as often” as boys and “hold them to stricter politeness norms.” Such bias is an inherited trait in our culture, so much so that most of us don’t even notice that we’re doing it. The way to break the spell, according to Chemaly, is to name it and then give girls ten words of empowerment. The words are formed into three short sentences, available for use by any girl or woman whenever needed. Chemaly encourages girls to practice these sentences every day:
“Stop interrupting me.”
“I just said that.”
“No explanation needed.”
If we do this, she says, “It will do both boys and girls a world of good. And no small number of adults.” To which I can only add that the good might include bringing a bit more wisdom into the world. For only when we stop talking and listen can wisdom ever get her word in edgewise.
Interestingly, among the women’s voices not often heard is the voice of Wisdom herself. There is an entire corpus of biblical material referred to as wisdom literature that rarely gets its due. The wisdom books typically refer to the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, the books of Ecclesiasticus and The Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha, and a few other scattered passages here and there.* This wisdom material “constitutes about 12 percent of the combined canonical [Hebrew Bible] and Apocrypha,”* though it’s fair to say that 12 percent of Sunday sermons wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. In part this is because most Protestant Bibles don’t even include the Apocrypha, though Catholic and Orthodox Bibles do; but perhaps more tellingly is the fact that the wisdom material is strange and circumspect, often devoid of easy answers and requiring a deep, listening search.
This morning’s text is drawn from The Wisdom of Solomon, and it contains one of the places where Wisdom is personified as a woman. Another place is Proverbs Chapter 8. But the Wisdom passage occurred to me after I read Solnit and Chomaly and while I began a new practice, attempted a new practice, of spiritual listening every day. In the reading we’ve just heard, we are told of the scribe’s search for Wisdom and what is required in finding her.
“Wisdom shines brightly and never fades,” says the text. “She is readily discerned by those who love her, and by those who seek her. . .”* The lines continue, assuring us of the simplicity of the task. “She is quick to make herself known. . .[and] for those who are worthy. . .on their daily path she appears to them with kindly intent, meeting them half-way. . .”* This is a beautiful image of Wisdom out in the world, available to all who will seek her and even seeking them out herself, but in a subtle manner. She meets people half-way. She is available to those who will come the other half. By looking. By listening. And, as the text says, by the desire to learn. This is where it starts. The earnest seeker of Wisdom must have the desire to learn, which means the desire strong enough to make ourselves vulnerable and stop talking about all that we do not know. No more men explaining things to her. No more clueless preachers at the picnic. But spiritual searchers, men and women willing to let their guard down and greet every person as a bearer of truth. Wisdom beckons us beyond our blind spots.
It is a truth about us all, wrote the prescient philosopher William James, that we are afflicted by a certain blindness. That blindness is “in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.”* Each of us is implicitly biased toward our own feelings and perceptions and it takes a conscious effort to recognize this and develop new patterns and practices to mitigate it. Put another way, we only begin to see when we know that we are blind. We only begin to hear, when we know that we are deaf. And so we begin, with great humility, to acknowledge this and to ask ourselves who we are not seeing, who we are not hearing. . . In James’ words, “neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer.”* We would be unwise to think that we know it all. The path to wisdom, simply put, is to see and to hear all the observers, to join in a greater circle of knowing and being known, slowly apprehending the truth being unveiled when we move beyond our own small egos into something much greater. And if that’s a bit wordy, if that sounds too much like a man explaining things to you, then perhaps I might suggest something better. A spiritual practice for your week. It is something that has been teaching me every day since I walked out of the bookstore in San Francisco. And I invite you to join me in trying it.
Listen to the conversations around you and pay attention to the gender of the participants. Notice how many times women, in particular, are interrupted, talked at, or talked over. Observe how many things never get said because no one is listening and feel the great lack, the void of wisdom.
Listen to yourself in conversation, not only if you’re a man, but perhaps especially if you are. Notice how many times you either interrupt or are tempted to do so. Observe whether you are really listening to the person or just thinking about what you’re going to say next.
And then practice the art of active, spiritual listening. Interrupt the interrupters so that someone has a chance to finish. Find your own ways of saying, “Stop interrupting,” “I just said that,” and “No explanation needed.” Treat every conversation as a learning exercise, where wisdom can be found by those who will truly seek her rather than trying to prove how clever they already are. And call this what it is: good theology. An article of faith for those of us who believe that every person is equal in dignity and value and that every voice ought to be heard.
In the name of Wisdom. And in the love of learning. May it be so.
*Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 4.
*Soraya Chemaly, “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn,” The Huffington Post, June 30, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/10-words-every-girl-should-learn_b_5544203.html
*John Gabel, Charles Wheeler, and Anthony York, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 137.
*The Wisdom of Solomon 6.12, Revised English Version.
*The Wisdom of Solomon 6.13a, 16b.
*William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” in The Heart of William James, ed. Robert Richardson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 146.