For many of us, Thanksgivings grants valuable time with family and friends, full of feasting and conversation and togetherness. Each year that we have hosted the festivities, my husband and I remind each other what’s most important about the day. More than a spotless house and delectable casseroles and a golden turkey, we want to give our guests our presence.
Sounds easy enough, but with a large crowd, concentration can be a challenge for me. Giving my presence to people isn’t easy when there are many conversations happening at the same time and the sweet potatoes have to be watched so the marshmallow topping doesn’t burn and the cheese tray stays stocked.
Listening in the middle of the Thanksgiving hoopla isn’t easy.
A recent New York Times article by Seth Horowitz titled “The Science and Art of Listening” explains why this is true. There is a difference between “the sense of hearing” and “the skill of listening”—and that difference is called attention.
Our ears are catching sounds whether we are giving attention to them or not. This is hearing. But to focus upon a specific sound—such as the sound of a particular voice at a Thanksgiving gathering—requires us to filter out the din of our surroundings:
[Listening] is what happens when an event jumps out of the background enough to be perceived consciously rather than just being part of your auditory surroundings.
But listening, really listening, is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second.
And with a houseful of guests, distractions are many. This gives me some solace; in the past, I have been frustrated with how easily I can get distracted from the conversation I’m trying to give attention to. Knowing that listening isn’t easy for anyone is like receiving a helping of grace. This year, when distraction kicks in, I can identify it and get back to concentrating rather than being frustrated at my inability to stay checked in. Horowitz even provides some suggestions for sharpening your listening skills:
We can train our listening just as with any other skill. Listen to new music when jogging rather than familiar tunes. Listen to your dog’s whines and barks: he is trying to tell you something isn’t right. Listen to your significant other’s voice — not only to the words, which after a few years may repeat, but to the sounds under them, the emotions carried in the harmonics.
With Thanksgiving just days away, sharpening our skills in time for this gathering might be a stretch. But giving the gift of attention? That’s doable. And every time I get distracted, I get to give the gift again.