If You Want to See a More Whole Society Start By Listening

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. An evening spent at the DuSable Museum of African American History on the south side of Chicago proved to be a transformative experience. The occasion was a dialogue between mothers and sons two years ago entitled, Question Bridge: Black Males - Mother to Son: A Frank Discussion and Letters of Love. I attended the event on behalf of a Jewish social justice organization supporting our community partners who had contributed to organizing it.

It was when I walked into the auditorium and quickly noticed that I was not just the only kippah-clad person in the room but the only person with white skin that I knew this would be an evening unlike any other. I was warmly welcomed into the space but that did not impact my profound feeling that I was invading an intimate and sacred space that belonged to someone else. I was invited to attend and it was an open event yet nonetheless it was very much a private conversation between mothers and sons and between members of the same community.

All too often when we enter a setting we seek to fill up the space with ourselves. We project our ego and our personality into the room because we desire to win friends and influence people. However, there are times where we are called to make ourselves small, to metzamtzem in the Hebrew vocabulary of Jewish mysticism. This evening was very much a moment that required a diminishing of self. It is when we reduce our own presence that we can truly listen.

I learned a great deal that evening. The most important things I learned though were not facts or statistics. Those items can be learned easily through study and research. What I learned that evening was the pain and trauma, the fear and humiliation, the distinct othering that occurs on a daily basis to African Americans in our society. I stopped talking and I listened and through that listening I came to know the faces of my neighbors, my friends and my colleagues who suffer in silence the routine indignities that strip them of their equal standing in society. I had read these accounts many times before and thought I understood but it was through listening, truly listening, on that evening in Chicago that I began to finally truly understand.

There are so many rifts in our American national community. Mistrust of those who pray differently. Dislike of those who vote differently. Disrespect of difference. When one of the most prominent leaders of the birther movement can celebrate in a speech in front of thousands the final year of the president's term and the audience erupt in cheers and no one in the audience can realize the damage being done to relationships that have been cultivated over long periods of time, there is a serious need for listening.

If you fear someone of a different faith step out of your comfort zone and seek out opportunities to listen to people of that faith. If you do not understand the experiences of people who look differently than you then find opportunities to listen to them -- not challenge them -- but simply listen. If you dislike people who vote differently than you ask a friend or colleague who is of a different political persuasion to share what brought her or him to that place. After you have listened thank the other person for sharing. The time at that moment is not for rebutting them or challenging them but simply to express gratitude that another person chose to share with you.

The path towards a more whole, stronger and vibrant society begins with the act of listening. May we find the moments where we can stop speaking and open our ears to the other.