In an essay written by a Ripton 15-year-old student contemplating the changes she faced moving from her middle school of 26 students to the 600-plus students at Middlebury Union High School, she touched on a striking revelation that many adults would do well to ponder: through her studies she had gained a sensitivity to the world around her.
While at the North Branch School she attended from seventh to ninth grade, she and her classmates learned about “Marxism, Plato, Quakerism, Bucky Fuller (look that one up), Judaism and much more… we spent innumerable hours sitting around an oval-shaped table, talking about feelings — this was an actual class. I learned about philosophy, religion, benthic macro invertebrates and the Pythagorean theorem…
“Through listening to long student presentations on the Russian Revolution or the 1960s, sitting in a Quaker Meeting or hearing someone talk about what mattered to them, I learned how to listen, simply because I did it a lot.
“But I also learned much more. Going on a walk down my dirt road on a dreary March day, I learned how to see. A muddy road on a grey day was not depressing anymore. I had begun to zero in on the more precious things, such as a crocus poking up through the muddy ground, or the spring sun shining through what I had previously thought was an impenetrably grey sky.”
More importantly, she continued, she learned empathy.
“I learned to understand where my peers were coming from based on only a few words they had muttered, and how to find the important bits. Everything through my eyes was so much brighter and vivid than before.”
That’s the magic of learning. Recognizing it is wisdom.
In reviewing this essay, it was shocking to realize how far off the mark our current political dialogue has become.
As a nation, we have lost the art of listening.
And it’s not just the candidates; it’s followers too. It’s seen most easily in the ideologues of either party — those who hold beliefs on faith, despite the overwhelming evidence of fact. The denial of mankind contributing to climate change is a well-known example.
Giving voice to the idea of “legitimate rape,” is another. Believing that government has no useful role in our lives (except spending trillions on defense and war) is another issue in which the rhetoric of ideologues drowns out any common sense — most aptly demonstrated by the image of a protesting, older white American angrily jabbing a sign into the air demanding: “Get government out of my Medicare!”
Honestly, it couldn’t get more illogical.
The candidates don’t help. Proclaiming that increasing the capital gains tax would cause the economy to contract, or reducing it would cause it to grow, as Mitt Romney recently argued on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” is also disconnected to reality. But it is equally disingenuous of President Obama to brand all of Wall Street as evil in his effort to push stronger regulatory reform, or blame the health insurance industry for ruthless practices that all companies are pursuing not because they are evil but because that’s the way the rules are established today.
Such stark positions come from a desire to make a point in the simplest way possible. It’s the sound bite that makes it on the nightly news; the juicy tidbits that excite, anger and motivate the true blue to do battle for their side.
Nuance is lost in the process, however, and so is the greater truth that lies at the heart of most political debates, buried deep in the details and complexities of real life.
The black and white nature of these conversations, the willingness of true believers to reject fact and believe in the politics of fiction, the refusal to even think the other side has a valid position, all seem to be connected to the failure to listen, or to even want to listen.
Listening, after all, is humble, and we live in an increasingly narcissistic society — defined most notably in the political world by such personalities as Donald Trump, Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh. Narcissism, after all, is a love of self, coupled with an inability to listen to others while demanding others listen to you.
How better to define the demise of our political system and the loss of moderates within those ranks?
What to do? Listen again to the voice of that 15-year-old student contemplating the rather scary changes ahead when she discovered “that my new-found sensitivity to other people’s perspectives strengthened my willingness to accept change as an agent of good… Next time you are talking to someone, really listen to them and try to pick out the most meaningful bits.”
That’s particularly profound, today, because you can’t get there without first believing that what other people have to say is important, too.