Wednesday, November 01, 2023

When We Listen With Our Entire Self

"Your wish is my command."

It's a phrase that originates in the Arabic folk tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. It's what the genii said to the boy who conjured him. It is meant as a declaration of gratitude for having been released from the prison of the lamp, one that the genii makes in earnest. He will, up to the limit of three wishes, obey the boy. 

Today, more often than not, when we use the phrase we mean it sarcastically, as a way of indicating that someone has us over a barrel. As autonomous modern humans, most of us have learned to be uncomfortable with ceding our behavior to the whims of others and to feel resentful when circumstances conspire to place us in the control of others. And even when we say or hear "Your wish is my command" spoken with the earnestness of the genii, we know that there are limits to any obedience, even if a great debt is owed.

I've written often here about the widely-accepted cultural notion that children should, at least when it comes to "important" things, obey the adults in their life. In my view, this is a dangerous thing to teach children because we know that the lessons learned in our youth have a way of carrying forward into adulthood and adults who have learned obedience are not adults who are well-equipped to make their own decisions. They tend to be people who look to others to do their thinking for them because, at the end of the day, that is what obedience is all about: it is about making another person's wish into our own command. Obedient people can be more easily made to do things against their own judgment or best interests, which makes them dangerous to themselves and others, and easy targets for bad actors.

I was surprised, therefore, to recently learn that linguists believe that the words "hear" and "obey" most likely originated as the same word. In Latin, the word obedire translates as "obey," which is the composite of ob + audire, which means to hear while facing someone. This is true for Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Russian, as well as English.

Of course, meanings change over time and through usage, but I recognize that in my own life, hearing, and especially listening, is a kind of obedience.

As researcher in psychology Julian Jaynes puts it: "Consider what it is to listen and understand someone speaking to us. In a certain sense we have to become the other person; or rather, we let him become part of us for a brief second. We suspend our own identities, after which we come back to ourselves and accept or reject what he has said. But that brief second of dawdling identity is the nature of understanding language; and if that language is a command, the identification of understanding becomes the obedience."

Jaynes is writing about understanding language specifically, but I think this goes for the entirety of interpersonal communication, which includes both verbal and non-verbal listening.

Not all of what we call "listening" falls into this category. Many of us, especially when we are in positions of power, as when we are adults with young children, merely perform a show of listening while we construct our response, or, as is too often the case when a child tells us a long-winded story, simply as a polite cover for the fact that we are merely waiting for them to come to an end, and lacking that, a space in which we can interrupt. But when we honestly listen, when we, as Eleanor Duckworth says, "listen with our entire self" it is an act of putting ourselves completely at the service of others.

The act of understanding another person is, however briefly, a necessary and voluntary act of obedience because (Duckworth again) ". . . we cannot assume that an experience whose meaning seems clear to us will have the same meaning for someone else."

Our profession as early childhood educators is too often wrapped up in the language and practice of adults controlling, dictating, telling, and "teaching," but the true art, the true practice of an educator is listening, to hear their wishes and make understanding them our command. 

As Mister Rogers writes, "I think the most important part about communication is the listening we do beforehand."


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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