Listening: A Vital, If Undervalued Tool for Humanists

Listening: A Vital, If Undervalued Tool for Humanists March 1, 2020

Milo Miloezger, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. This one’s part-personal-update, part-lesson (I hope) about how some of our best work as humanists will come from listening to others, and from availing ourselves to the possibility that many things we take for granted are not givens for everyone else. This is especially important, I’d argue, when it comes to establishing a sense of moral conduct in the secular world. Is what we’re suggesting should be “common sense” really universally applicable? Or are there relativistic assumptions underpinning what we consider to be virtuous and responsible relational conduct?

Global humanism requires that we flex one superpower in particular–and yes, I said superpower, because listening is not easy. Listening to others, once we’ve found a behaviour set that works for our own lives, can be one of the hardest things to do.

But I’d argue that it’s one of the most rewarding, sometimes, too.

The Case-Study: M. L. Moves!

As a Canadian in Colombia, sometimes my cultural background clashes sharply with local norms… and it certainly did this week, when I did my darnedest to be ready to move to a new apartment this Saturday. I had every detail down to a Canadian “T”: the moving company, the cleaning lady, the internet hookup (timed so that I could finish the move across town, double back to the old apartment to pick up my cleaning supplies, then return and wait for the internet provider), plus the cookies to be baked and left with a specially designed, Spanish-checked, and printed goodbye note to my incredible neighbours. I had even perfectly phased out all the foodstuffs in my fridge, so that I’d have zero risk of waste or spoilage! I was all packed up by Thursday night, with all my furniture at the fore of the old apartment to make for easy transfer on Saturday morning to the truck. (And but one de-footed sofa to sleep on for the last couple nights.)

Alack, Medellín is a mountain-valley city, which means that, when there is abiding cloud coverage without sufficient rainfall, air pollution can quickly accumulate to toxic levels. So, the city has a great emergency policy: when the clouds don’t disperse fast enough, it bans all large vehicles for a few days, and changes restrictions on other vehicles to reduce emissions. This is fantastic for overall municipal health… but it also meant that I got a call Friday during my early-morning classes, telling me that my move had been cancelled. The truck could not be on the road until Monday.

Now… I work a really tough schedule at present–out at 4:45am, back at 9pm, spending up to 5.5 hours in transit around town to teach around 4.5 or 6 hours a day and work on translation or review projects in nearby malls for the rest of it. (Ergo my sluggishness to respond to your comments, and to pull them from the depths of Disqus’s automatic red-flag hell: sorry, folks!) So, after two weeks of trying to fit in a lot of pre-move obligations for the rental agency (renter-viability assessments involve a lot more in-person material acquisitions here than in Canada), I had a very human moment after Friday’s 6-9am classes. I cried in a public space before getting down to the work of cancelling Monday’s classes and rescheduling everything else.

The Education: Cultural Differences with Respect to Planning

But I also didn’t stop learning from the incident, because as much as my North American friends had nothing but condolences for me, my Colombian associates all… laughed. ¡Bienvenida a Colombia! It was all matter-of-fact to them, the reality that plans change. And, hey, how lucky I was to have the ability to reschedule, right? How fortunate I was in so many ways! I was moving into a nice new apartment, too costly for most locals. What did I have to be upset about? It was just a couple more days’ waiting, right?

Now, Colombian culture is often known for being… much more relaxed about timing and future-planning. There’s a friendly internal joke about “Colombian Time” meaning that I shouldn’t expect students to arrive until 15 minutes after the class has started… and for many of my clients, this has been absolutely true. Likewise, it is impossible to pull off a surprise party in Colombia, because it’s pretty common for people to arrive an hour or two after the stated start time of a given event.

Obviously, of course, this isn’t universal–I’ve met many Colombians who are more “Canadian” about their schedules, and embarrassed and frustrated by the behaviour of fellow Colombians… but almost all of these folks are working in jobs where they have direct international dealings with North American and European companies. (Oh, or occasionally with Argentinians; and I have the hardest time not laughing when a tardy Colombian complains about the apparently even worse lack of future-planning among Argentinian associates. This is all second-hand information, mind you, but from multiple Colombian companies, working in tech, materials production, finance, and law.)

Conversely, the local-locals? The ones who primarily interact only with other Colombians? Well, they’ve told me that this relaxed attitude towards time and future-planning is quite logical considering two major geopolitical factors. First off:

The geo-

There’s no winter here. There are no major seasons. Meanwhile, how Canadians, Europeans, and Estadounidenses organize their lives is informed by the reality of extreme environmental changes. One has to be prepared for the future in our cultures, because there are distinct temporal periods in which certain activities are feasible, and ones in which the climate itself is hostile to our survival.

Not so in Colombia, and especially not so in The City of Eternal Spring, Medellín, which might start the day at a nippy 13°C, then surge up to 27-30°C mid-morning through midday, then drop off again, sharply, when the sun goes down around 6:30pm. I’ve been here two years, and I’ve already forgotten the severity of winter myself; it shocks me to look at my friends’ feeds from Canada, with all their pristine blankets of white and relentless skies of grey. Everything here is… sun or rain. The only “true” seasonal change is the same that you find everywhere: the “season,” that is, of construction.

And secondly:

The -political

Colombia–and especially a city like Medellín–is used to sudden deprivations and disruptions. The families here have strong histories of enduring massive rolling blackouts, especially in the 1990s and 2000s. A sudden collapse in the housing market around then, too, completely uprooted many people from independent lives and drastically changed family living arrangements. And, of course, there were recent periods when the city was literally under seige, with government and paramilitary forces embroiled with local cartels and guerrillas, sequestering whole neighbourhoods for days on end. So, folks here are highly attuned to the fact that life pays no heed to individual plans. That making plans too soon and too firmly can just as easily lose as much as save you time and money. What’s the use, then, of clinging so fiercely to planning for the future as this great moral virtue, the standard-bearer of excellent human conduct?

Conversely, my fixation on planning is, on one level, more than a little spoiled. As an urban Canadian (as opposed to, say, an indigenous person living in a rural majority-First Nations, Métis, or Inuit community with a decade-long boiled-water advisory notice, or long-term exposure to toxic waste products, or precarious access to healthcare and education), I’m used to regulated living in cities with a long-standing assumption of general safety. In consequences, I can plan easily, because I’ve had an historical basis for trust in the value of planning.

That’s not true for a lot of folks here in Medellín.

And, gradually, I’m learning it’s also not true anymore for me.

But Wait–Canadians Don’t All Plan, Do They?

The funny thing, though, is that learning to let go of my best-laid plans here has also made me realize how much of a contrivance planning was in Canada, too–even in big urban centres. How much of my planning there was actually a reflection of good moral conduct? Of admirable personal responsibility, and self-discipline? Sure, the whole “trying not to waste other people’s time by being punctual” still seems pretty solid and respectful counsel to me…

But there was always something else going on in the rigidity of my planning in Canada, because its prioritization came from a specific class background and attitude: a lower-middle-class mentality, frantically wretched when in debt, trained to expect that one has to do everything oneself, and relentlessly aspiring to “earn” a more stable middle-class existence. I was living, that is, within the meritocratic lie of North American society, that I could simply will myself into better social outcomes: If I played the game just right. If I never dropped the ball. If I was always on top of everything.

This is the same, sick logic, though, that has Canadians and Estadounidenses turning on people suffering from serious disruptions in the course of their lives–disruptions that sometimes happen through no exceptional fault of their own. When a young U.S. man was injured in a mass shooting at a Batman screening, for instance, and faced a million-dollar treatment charge because he was uninsured, a great many Estadounidenses blamed him for not having had the foresight to get coverage. How irresponsible! If he hadn’t wanted to be broken by debt, he should’ve been more prepared from the outset.

Similar criticism is launched at plenty of North Americans who are down on their luck from illness or job-loss or the fallout from ended relationships, as if they “should’ve” known better, “should’ve” saved more, “should’ve” planned for every possible outcome.

Here in Colombia, though, I’ve finally realized that the moral virtue of careful planning I was raised on… is a morality based on fear. Which isn’t to say that planning is wrong, or bad! I’m not arguing for forgetting about the future entirely.

However, while it’s an incredibly good idea to plan as best one can in a culture that will blame you (the individual) for anything that might go wrong in your life… there’s a world of difference between a “good idea” and a “societal ideal.”

But to get to those genuine societal ideals–to develop a clear moral compass, that is, around thriving and not just surviving–we need to be willing to listen to people in other social contracts. We need to remember that there is more than one “common sense” approach to personal and relational dynamics.

The Take-Away

Listening to others isn’t just about developing greater empathy for others, then; it’s also about being kinder to ourselves. But that’s an awfully hard thing for us to manifest, because most of us are so caught up in trying to get by on a day-to-day basis that we’re locked into a style of living, a behavioural ethos, that works for us while making other ways of being seem only like obstacles to our own.

When we can surmount that knee-jerk, superficial antagonism towards other ways of being, from other social contexts, we might surprise ourselves by receiving new insights into how to live better within our own contexts, too.

For me, I was so frustrated by my sense of loss on Friday: the sheer futility of all the effort I’d put in to pull off a smooth move. But why? What end did all that negativity serving?

I was proactively defending myself, I realized, against the assumption that others would see this as a moral failing on my part. That the added mess and drama of my disrupted schedule was just proof-positive that I hadn’t “earned” peace and rest and stability, because I couldn’t stay on top of everything I “should’ve” in my life.

And… when they didn’t… when my Colombian associates just took it all as a matter of course… I realized how much fear had been guiding most of my decision-making in the last few weeks. Fear that I’d screw up the move. Fear that everything else would spiral out of control from there on out.

Carefully planning every last detail of my intended move on Saturday was one way to try to assert control over this fear: to master and surmount it.

But it wasn’t the only way available to me. And as I discovered on Friday, neither was it necessarily the best way.

So, I still have a lot more listening to do to other social contracts. And it still seems Herculean, at times, to implement the best insights from them in my own practice.

But if we global humanists are ever going to build better social contracts in the secular sphere, we need to attune ourselves to the real underpinnings of all the cultural mores we take for granted. We need to listen for the precarity, that is, and the fear, that can keep us trapped in the relational ethics of mere survival… when at this point in our species’ history, with all our collective knowledge and experience, there is absolutely no reason we cannot be growing societies, instead, in which we’ll thrive.

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