“If you love to listen you will gain knowledge, and if you incline your ear you will become wise.” Sirach 6:33
Introduction: 30 Years of Fatherhood and Still So Much to Learn Every Day
I was honored by Jim Havens’ invitation to contribute a thought or two from my experiences as a husband (32 years this October) and as a father (30 years this November). Though I’ve had a lot of practice with my wife and two sons, I’m sure they would agree in complete unanimity that I am not perfect yet! Still, I think I have learned the importance of at least one thing, and I’ll try to pass that on.
I hope to impart a simple, common sense lesson that builds upon Jim’s reflections on the need to pray for and practice humility so that we will direct ourselves and our families to love and to imitate Christ. This simple lesson is simply to listen. When we listen, we humbly acknowledge to our spouse and children that we do not already know it all – and that their words are important to us. As parents we influence our children in ways we may never completely comprehend, as we set for them both positive and negative examples in the words and deeds of our daily lives.
Let me begin with a real-life example. The incident I have in mind involves my own father, from whom I received so many good things. He modeled, for example, what it was to work exceedingly hard to support one’s family, in his case as a plasterer. He also unselfishly encouraged and helped me and my siblings in all of our hobbies and special interests, taking us on countless occasions and without a word of complaint to things like baseball games or weightlifting competitions that were only of interest to him because they were of interest to us. The example I provide here is a negative one though.
I’d always been blessed to excel in academics, but could not decide what field I should pursue in college. One day in my late teens, at the peak of my frustration after my freshman year in college, I told my dad I had decided to drop out of college and go to work full-time at a restaurant where I had been working part-time. I will never forget that as he looked out a picture window (within the same house that is now my own family’s home), he simply nodded and said, “Uh-huh,” while pointing out something in the backyard that needed to be put away. Well, I actually did drop out for a semester – and after my brief sojourn in the work world I returned to my studies the next semester with an unmatched burning zeal! I forgive my father and realize that he may well have been so focused on problems of his own that he did not really hear me, but I did resolve to try to truly listen to my children whenever they came to me, and as I matured and married a lovely, loving wife I resolved to try to do the same with her. I’ll note as well that my mother was quite gifted at listening, and I cherished the daily phone calls that we shared for decades until her last day on earth.
On a related theme, is there a father who has heard the lyrics of Harry Chapin’s folk-rock song Cat’s in the Cradle who has not been haunted by them? “When you coming home, dad?” asks a young son, to which his dad responds, “I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then. You know we’ll have a good time then.” As his requests for attention are repeatedly deflected, the son’s refrain throughout is “That’s OK. You know I’m going to be like you dad, you know I’m going to be like you.” Of course, as the song ends, the boy has indeed grown into a busy man without enough time for his father. What a powerful message. We need to try to be there for our children. As always, Christ shows us the way. It was He who said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:16).
Even if we are blessed to be able to spend considerable time with our children, we need to truly be present to them when we are there by listening to their words and paying attention to their facial expressions and body language as well. Truly listening to our children is important throughout their lives, from the very first words they speak as toddlers to our conversations when they are adults and parents too, should we be blessed to live so long.
To expound a bit on the opening quotation from Sirach, when we listen to our spouses and our children, we will gain knowledge about them, about their loves and fears and their spiritual states, and by giving them our ears we will grow wise as husbands and fathers, better able to guide and work with them to live lives of love in Christ. St. Paul told us the “faith comes from what is heard” (Rom. 10:17) and we know that God sometimes speaks, as he did to Elijah on the mountain in a “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12). We too should heed the voice of Christ when he speaks through the still small voices of our loved ones. And to play just a bit on wise Sirach’s words, we should not only “love to listen,” but in a real sense, “listen to love.”
Sirach also advises to “be quick to hear, and deliberate in answering” (5:11). We listen to our children and spouses so that we will also be better able to answer them, to draw out their concerns, comfort them, share in their joys, and offer words of congratulations or counsel. When we train ourselves to make the conscious efforts to listen carefully to our loved ones and to respond to them thoughtfully with deliberation, we model them Christ for them, He who always hears our prayers and answers in ways that are truly best for us.
Putting Listening Into Practice – Today!
1). Pray that God will give you the grace to grow in your ability to listen to your loved ones and to hear Him when He speaks in a still, small voice.
2). As you read the Bible, pay attention to the hundreds of passages spread throughout the Scriptures that emphasize hearing and listening to each other and to God.
3). Get together in person if possible or by phone or some other means if not and talk and listen to your wife and your children today, being conscious to ask them questions and draw them out rather than dominating the conversation with your own concerns. If at all possible, include some time talking to them individually, one-on-one.
4). Especially if you happen to be a loquacious person, a “talker” who has difficulty with listening, or perhaps a more withdrawn, sullen type who might listen to others, but seldom give evidence that you have heard them, consider actually learning about and pursuing the arts of listening and carrying on conversation. Years ago, I came across the book How to Speak: How to Listen by Mortimer J. Adler and profited from simple lessons such as those explaining that listening is not merely a passive process but an active one, and that conversation is a two or more way street, so that we should keep in mind when conversing with one other person, for example, we should strive not to monopolize more than about a 50% share of the time and the words! (Professor Adler, by the way, was a man who called himself a pagan most of his life, but heard God’s “still small voice” late in life, becoming an Episcopalian in his 70’s and a Catholic in his 90s).
5). Thank God that as the God-fearing ancient philosopher Epictetus once put it:“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” and as St. James has made crystal clear for us: “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).