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He Who Will Not Hear


We live in a world of sound and fury, bombarded from all sides by a cacophony of messages—political, commercial and personal. No wonder people hear so little. It is a deficit that is often willful.

The Michael Cohen hearing this week was a perfect example. Where in the torrent of words that flooded the House Oversight Committee hearing was real meaning? Surely, somewhere in the verbiage there were valuable nuggets but mostly it appeared that both political parties were involved in a blood sport, casting aspersions and allegations designed to wound and undermine and not to seek the truth.

The inability to hear each other is, I believe, at the heart of America’s current disfunction. In my home, we have a perfect example of how failing to hear, really hear, what another is saying can lead to confusion and misinformation. In our instance, the cause is physical—my husband’s hearing loss—and I credit our knowledge that he cannot hear well as the reason our second attempt at being married to each other has worked out so much better than the first. He is now aware that he doesn’t hear things correctly and does not cling to misperceptions if I tell him that what he heard is not what I said or meant.

When my mother was alive, it was almost a comedy of errors. She, too, was deaf and the possible misinterpretations were endless. For instance, there was the night when she wandered over to our side of the house to chat. She was an avid fan of the UConn girls’ basketball team, but, because she had also lost much of her vision, could never read when the games would be on. She regularly asked my husband for time and channel and he learned to anticipate these requests.

One night when mom arrived, instead of asking about the game, she asked after our son and his girlfriend. “Has he gone to see Amy tonight?” she asked. My husband picked up the TV remote and began flicking through channels. “No, I don’t think there are any games on tonight,” he replied in a perfect non sequitur.

When, speaking a little louder, I repeated her actual question, we all burst out laughing, realizing that he had heard only portions of what she said and had made a logical guess to fill in he what didn’t hear. It happens more often than not. I once asked him for a bottle of soda from the refrigerator and was given a jar of salsa.

Fortunately, he has a sense of humor about all this.

In my career as a reporter I have observed that people often do not listen well, misinterpret what they do hear and forget the portions of conversations that they do not want to know about. Add to that the fact that many self-engrossed people think only about what they want to say next rather than listening to what the other person is saying and the room for misunderstanding is vast.

Listening is a fine art honed in many supposedly more primitive societies where children are trained from early life to sit passively, listening to their elders and not to rattle on noisily about nothing. In the tribal councils of these simpler societies, it is common for men—and sometimes women—to present their ideas in sequence making their arguments without interruptions. These positions may be countered by the next speaker but the points are politely made, one at a time, without the kinds of shouting matches we have been privy to in our public discourse in recent years.

I would not argue that being hard of hearing is a desirable circumstance but I will acknowledge the benefits of it in my personal life. When a person must listen carefully to discern what is being said, and leaves room for the possibility that he or she may not have accurately heard what the other was saying, it opens the possibility for a more productive dialogue. As the idiom, probably drawn from the Biblical book of Jeremiah, notes, “There is none so blind as he who will not see, and none so deaf as he who will not hear.”