“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus
When we hear the word “generosity,” we may think about donating money and helping the needy. While these can be expressions of a generous heart, there is a more fundamental and soulful way that we can extend generosity in our everyday lives. And it doesn’t cost us any money.
A deep human longing is to be seen, heard, and understood. The epidemic of loneliness and depression in our society can be traced in part to how we often don’t hear each other. Perhaps we’re driven by a fear of survival in a highly competitive society. By the end of the day, we may be exhausted and seek solace in the TV or computer.
We may have grown so accustomed to not being heard, and being criticized and shamed when we’ve tried, that we’ve learned to hold a lot inside. Our feelings and longings go into hiding and atrophy when we’ve given up on them. We shut down our vulnerability, or worse, we turn against it in an attempt to erase all vestiges of being a vulnerable human being. Sadly, when we don’t turn toward each other for support, reassurance, and encouragement, we isolate ourselves. We succumb to the emptiness that derives from removing ourselves from the fabric of life.
We’re wired with a need for human connection. When that need goes unmet, we may give up and seek secondary gratifications, such as for power, fame, or money, which don’t really fill our emptiness or satisfy our deepest yearnings. Or we turn to various addictions to distract us from our painfully unmet longing.
Consequently, we may then lose sensitivity not only to ourselves, but also to the plight of others. This is a sad state of affairs, especially when those in leadership positions promote policies that increase divisiveness and dissociation from our humanity.
Begin with Generosity Toward Yourself
Being generous toward others begins by developing a generous presence toward ourselves. Rather than judge and criticize ourselves, we can cultivate a “caring, feeling presence” toward our feelings, as described by Focusing teachers Dr. Edwin McMahon and Dr. Peter Campbell. We’re then well positioned to extend attention toward others’ experience.
Meaningful relationships are nourished by the generosity of attending to others. How deeply do you listen to people when they are sharing something important to them — hearing not just the words, but also the feelings beneath their words and stories? How attuned are you to their felt experience? Do you notice your attention wandering or preoccupied with any of the following:
- Preparing your response?
- Finding things to criticize?
- Turning the conversation toward your own thoughts or feelings?
- Struggling to find something to say to make them feel better or feeling badly that you don’t know how to respond?
It’s natural for our attention to wander, but the generous art of listening means sustaining our full attention toward our partner or friend as they’re sharing something personal or difficult. This is not about fixing their problem or telling them what to do. It’s simply about extending your caring, feeling presence toward someone who is struggling. It’s about listening with the ear of the heart, as St. Benedict put it.
What could be more generous and healing than opening our ears and heart to how another is experiencing life right now? Listening is the doorway to the connections we seek. It is the salve that soothes our disconnectedness and eases our isolation.
Listening can open a door to being heard. When a person feels heard, they feel cared about. They feel less alone. They feel more connected. By creating a climate where others experience your generous attention, they are likely to appreciate you, feel drawn toward you, and come to care about you. If you want to be heard, begin by listening. It’s a powerful practice to give to others what we’d like to receive from them.