Listening with New Ears
“There are two ways to live your life—one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”—Albert Einstein
John and Laura came to me for help with their marriage. They complained about problems communicating with each other.
During our first meeting I asked Laura, “What’s causing you the most pain?”
“I’m depressed and lonely,” she said. I saw a tear in the corner of her eye.
“Tell me more about it,” I asked. “What’s depressing you and making you lonely?”
“John’s so busy with his work I don’t get much time with him,” she replied. “When he comes home in the evening he still has work to do.”
“I know I’m not as available as you want,” John responded. “But I do have work to finish. In today’s economy I can’t afford to lose my job–even if it means I have to prepare reports after I get home.”
“Were you lonely growing up?” I asked Laura.
“Very lonely,” she answered. “My mother wasn’t there for me.”
“How do you explain that?” I inquired.
“I was the youngest of five children,” Laura replied. “By the time I came along my mother had run out of gas. She never comforted me when I cried. No one was there for me. My oldest sister occasionally talked to me, but she left when I was five. She went away to college. I was all alone after that.”
“It sounds sad,” I said. “Was your mother there for your siblings?”
“When I listened to my sisters and brothers it sounded like my mother hadn’t been there much for them either,” Laura responded. “They used to say Mom wasn’t known for her nurturing.”
“It must have been painful,” I said. “Do you feel like that now—like no one’s there for you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she responded as tears filled her eyes. “When John’s busy on his computer at night I feel ignored. I know he has work to do, but I wish he would set aside some time for me.”
“I’m busy in the evening preparing reports for the next morning,” John said. He looked at Laura. “Sometimes I think you just need to learn to let go of your pain from growing up,” he said.
“Perhaps I should,” Laura responded, “but right now I’m not able to do that.”
During our meeting John defended himself. He had his own anxieties about his job. He couldn’t connect with the idea that he was creating pain for Laura. He made it clear that he thought of himself as completely unlike her mother. He talked about how he kept trying to help his wife. Like most of us, he saw himself siding with his spouse against the mother who had wounded her. He did not think of himself as inflicting pain on the wife he loved.
In our next appointment the following week I asked Laura about her father and whether he had been there for her.
“Almost never,” Laura said, “and there were times when he was awful.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He used to belittle me every time I brought home my report card,” she said. “He would ask me, ‘Are you lazy or are you stupid?’ He chided me for not doing as well in school as my brothers and sisters. He would harangue and lecture me. I guess he thought that would make me into a better pupil.”
“He was shaming you,” I said. “It must have been humiliating and painful.”
“It was,” she responded. She averted her gaze and dropped her head.
What surprised me is what happened next.
“I just got it,” John said as he spoke to Laura. “I didn’t realize until just now how I’ve been hurting you without meaning to. When I advise you to let go of your childhood pain it must sound just like your father giving you another lecture.”
Laura raised her head. She looked intently at John with a look of disbelief. A smile came to her face.
“I can’t believe you said that,” she responded. “I do feel with you exactly the way I did with my father when he would criticize me and tell me to shape up.”
“I’m sorry for doing that,” John said. “It’s not what I intended. I meant my advice to be helpful. I can see now that is wasn’t.”
What moved me was what happened with John. The previous week Laura had told him how his tone as well as his lecturing her about letting go had hurt her.
John had rebuffed her remarks and defended himself, clearly not liking to think of himself doing anything but loving Laura and trying to help her.
Like most of us, John sided with Laura when she spoke of how her parents had hurt her. He never thought of himself being like them, or repeating similar kinds of actions that re-wounded his wife. He rejected the idea that he could be an offender, especially to someone he loves.
In our meeting a week later something clicked. John suddenly saw how he could sound just like Laura’s father! There’s no predicting when something like this will happen. It is like a miracle. Our minds open and we can admit and take responsibility in a totally new way. That is what John did.
Laura witnessed the miracle. She was surprised and uplifted. They left our meeting in a new state of mind. John had changed an ingrained mindset that he was only a protector or a rescuer to Laura. He took off his blinders to see that without intending to he could also be an attacker or an offender.
John and Laura ascended to a new level, to a new state of awareness. Will they lapse back in the future? Probably. We all do at times. But they will never lose the new awareness-es they have attained: how the past colors the present and the present touches the past. John had seen how he can sound like Laura’s father and reopen old wounds for her.
Laura has seen in John something she never saw in her father: a man who appreciates how he can hurt the wife he loves and will take responsibility for it. Already they both are changed.
Remember the words of St. Paul: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2)
Old mindsets conform us to our ingrained beliefs. When you change your mindsets you renew your mind, and when you renew your mind you transform your life.