To a Fault: Word

Fault: Could be a better listener

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 2,000 characters) about a time in your life when this fault created a situation that had negative impact on your life.
I have a hard time hearing certain things people say.

Someone says: “I love you.” I hear: “I would love you if...”

Someone says: “Good job.” I hear: “That would have been good, but...”

Someone says: “I admire you.” I hear: “...but not as much as so-and-so.”

Someone says: “You did well in that bout.” I hear: “...but not as well as you should have.”

If it is praise, it bounces off of me. If it is support, I don’t trust it. If it is advice about how I could improve, all I hear is criticism.

I try to believe people when they say nice things to me, I really do. My mother’s daughter knows how to accept a compliment.

“Thank you,” I say. And I mean it. But there is always a part of me that is waiting for the sting.

Because I know it is coming.

Particularly when I ask for help. I don’t like asking for help. It means I am weak or haven’t thought hard enough or am just being selfish. It’s worst when I am feeling weak and mainly need a hug or a boost. Then, if I am truly desperate, I may try to get someone to reassure me. But it typically backfires. It is worst when it is someone whom I have previously helped.

It is safer never to ask.

(I’m digging deep here. These are my truths at their bleakest. Miserere mei.)

I try hard to listen to other people, especially when it is clear that they need to talk. My students when they come to office hours. My colleagues when they are presenting their work. My son when he is working on an essay or problem set. My husband when he is developing a new project. My friends when they are telling me about their lives.

Do I say the things that they need to hear? Or do I talk too much in an effort to make them feel better? It is all too easy to try to comfort them when what they need most is to talk and for me to listen.

But then I make the mistake of talking about myself, overriding whatever compassion I might have shown them.

No wonder I never believe when someone says, “I love you.” I am talking too much to hear them.
Alternative Outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, to minimize the effect of the fault.
I went to Mass this morning at the Basilica in Baltimore. The priest gave a marvelous sermon about St. Maria Faustina Kowalska and the message that Jesus commanded her to share with the world.

“My Heart is sorrowful,” Jesus told her, “because even chosen souls do not understand the greatness of My mercy. Their relationship [with Me] is...imbued with mistrust.” “O, how much I am hurt by a soul’s distrust!”

I spent the service thinking about my difficulty hearing people when they say they love or admire me and about how I prefer having things written down.

I used to take notes in every lecture I attended because I worried about being able to remember what was said. I write down every tune that we learn in fiddle class because I don’t trust myself to be able to play them simply by listening to the recording our teacher makes.

And then I thought about how much I had wanted to sing in the church choir when I was growing up, and how my piano teacher told me after one voice lesson that I was tone deaf.

That I was bad at listening--and always would be.

Whom do you trust? God, who says he loves you, made in his likeness and image? Or the piano teacher who tells you you will never be able to sing because you can’t hear the notes?

My piano teacher was wrong. I can hear the notes and I am getting better at hearing them in the fiddle tunes that I play. The fiddle playing has also helped my singing, so much so that now when I sing in church, I sometimes have the sense that it is somebody else entirely who is singing, not me at all.

I am very, very good at remembering what people say, whether in a lecture or in conversation. It was good practice taking notes all those years, but now I have trained myself to listen so well, I don’t need to. I often scare our priests at how well I can recall what they said in their sermons.

But I still don’t believe them when people give me compliments. Not so it sticks. And I am wary of professions of love, even from God.
Guidelines for General Improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have behaved differently in that particular situation, please think about this fault in more general terms. How could you work on improving this fault in general, so that such situations do not repeat themselves?
Jesus told St. Faustina: “Even the devils glorify My Justice but do not believe in My Goodness.”

Which makes me think I am not alone. It is easier to believe the worst that people say about us. It is very hard to believe the best.

And yet, we all need to be heard. Even God.

I bought the book of St. Faustina's diary in the cathedral gift shop. “My daughter,” Jesus said to her, “be diligent in writing down every sentence I tell you concerning My mercy, because this is meant for a great number of souls who will profit from it.... My dearest secretary, write that I want to pour out my divine life into human souls and sanctify them, if only they were willing to accept My grace.”

Professor Peterson talks about how language shows forth our divinity as human beings, about how it is through our words that we manifest ourselves in the world and at the same time participate in transcendence. “In the beginning was the Word.... All things were made through Him.”

Walking back through the city after Mass, I thought about how every person I passed carried a spark of this divinity, this ability to speak and make things by speaking. About how human beings are the presence of God in the world and how everything we make--cities, cultures, children--is an extension of God’s making. God acts on--and speaks to--the world through us.

Which makes both listening and speaking an enormous responsibility.

My friend George had some advice for me after I lost my first and only D-E bout this afternoon to the same fencer I lost to in my D-E on Friday. “If you take her blade, remember that she is now close enough to hit you if she extends. Don’t take her blade in a way that lets her control yours.”

Most of the time when people are talking, even if they are talking about you, they are talking about themselves. It’s important not to take what they say personally, otherwise you get trapped and think it is all about you.

It’s not. It’s about God and His desire for us to acknowledge His love.
This exercise got a bit mystical. Spooky, almost.

--From Jordan Peterson's Self-Authoring: Faults program.

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