As I thought about who and what have been my greatest teachers in life, I considered the quote: He who can, does; He who cannot, teaches*. Though this quote is considered disparaging to teachers, I like to think of it this way: as we age, and perhaps no longer have the ability to “do” some of the things we used to do, those experiences of doing lend a depth to what we are able to hand down to the next generation, a kind of legacy. You might argue that this is not at all what is meant by the quote. I choose to be contrary.
Another year goes by and I am one of many aging workers who have experienced and can share some wisdom about listening. As I accompanied a novice palliative care worker on a visit, I realized the lessons I have learned about listening came through living in many moments, and I can share this. Though I may no longer “do” (I am not daily caring for dying patients), I can teach because I have been a doer. (These are lessons I hope the next generation of doers learn also.) For me, my mentors and teachers have been those who have had a depth of knowledge through their own personal growth, and like them, I believe what I know firsthand lends credence to what I teach.
The lesson today was: listen with your whole heart. I had three teachers of this lesson who could be considered gurus. My counseling professor, who taught me that being curious was one of the best attributes of any counselor—and lived this advice. My mother, who taught me that giving time to listen to each other was part of loving well, providing a means of preventing squabbles and misunderstanding—always stopping to give her full attention to any concern expressed. My first dying patient, and countless others who followed, who taught me that the many things unsaid had great importance and could be heard— if hearts are open and listening well.
As I accompanied this new worker, I thought about being curious— which means don’t settle for a simple answer; giving full attention— which means stop focusing on filling in the blanks on the computer screen; and listening deeply to hear the unsaid words— which means take time to really hear. I realized that the listening lessons must be taught by those who know: those who have shared quiet moments and not hastened to fill the speech gaps during hard conversations; those who know that a question is simply an open door, and the opportunity to hear much more than the quick answer comes only if time is allowed before the next question is hurriedly asked; those who hear a concern, and can also hear the deeper unspoken words of existential suffering and aren’t afraid to delve a little deeper; those who can listen to another’s story even when their own story might feel mutual, yet recognize this time is not about them, or sharing what they know, but about stopping the flow of words in their own head, and being emptied of lists, agendas and necessary questions.
So, though I may do less, I want to teach this: Stop doing, and begin listening with empty hands, open hearts and caring presence.
(*from collection of quotes by George Bernard Shaw in Maxims for Revolutionists)