I have a selective hearing problem. When I’m at home on a Thursday night, weary from a day’s worth of important religious listening, the certain pleas of a younger family member of mine to discuss the latest plot twist in an all-too-predictable cartoon become easy to ignore.
When I’m at work on a Friday afternoon and an important member of our church community walks through the doors, I drop everything I’m doing to sit in the foyer and listen to whatever that person has to say.
I didn’t say I’m not a good listener; I’m just incredibly judicious about when I put in a listening effort and when I put a pair of metaphysical noise-cancelling headphones over my heart.
To be human today is to be a selective listener. The sheer volume at which the world cajoles us with its many voices means that just getting by involves countless choices of who to tune in and who to tune out. Our daily choices include:
- Which cable news channels comfort us?
- Which social media platform of choice algorithmically brings a sense of connection to the people we like?
- Which reminders from our domestic partners to help with household chores do we actually take to heart?
The key to effective selective listening is jumping to a conclusion about whether or not someone’s voice is worth our time. Putting people into categories that disquiet or soothe us aids immensely with this practice. The particular label matters a lot less than the act of sorting out voices that don’t mesh with our preferred way of seeing the world. It has always been easy to surround ourselves with people like us, but we are now technologically aided in this endeavour.
The beauty of a physical community is that we must share space with people who aren’t like us. If COVID-19 lockdowns have taught us one thing, it is that to be human is to be connected physically to others. We cannot help but be connected with the people with whom we may share a household, the people we encounter at work and those folks in the church pew. If we’re honest, our local church is a community full of people unlike us if we look beyond the unique brand of religious decorum that suits our tastes.
I’ll always be a selective listener. I couldn’t function in our world without being so. The challenge for me is to pay attention to when and why I’m tuning people in or out, and to avoid the temptation to only listen to voices that let me carry on comfortably and content in my own righteous sense of self.
Kevin Koop is pastor of Carrot River (Sask.) Mennonite Church.