The poetic, playful and prophetic musings of quintessential voices trying to keep up with life

Monday, December 3, 2012

Finding Your (Listening) Voice

Do you ever feel like you're simply not being heard by those around you?

Lately I've been struggling to find the space and language to articulate the problems I've faced with being a woman in graduate school, and not always being heard in the ways that I think I should be. But I think now I'm ready to share this tension I've been experiencing and what it means for me trying to move forward after my first semester of graduate theological school (!!!).

I used to be someone who only cared about being heard, and much of the time I failed to listen. Part of my reason for entering divinity school is because I want to hear the stories and struggles of those who feel like they have no voice and help them find a way to discover or use it. Regardless of if I ever choose to be ordained or pastor a church, I want to help people. Since my decision to pursue this ministry stuff, I feel I've gotten a little bit better at the listening part, but now it seems I've shyed away from the vocal prowess I used to have. It's not that I'm no longer opinionated or have nothing to say, but after certain experiences and conversations I've had with people I greatly respect, I've come to value the art of listening. It really can take you a long way, especially if you claim to want to help others in any capacity.

All of my educational settings thus far have been small-school, where everyone knows your know in a Cheers kind of way. Never before have I fully experienced life in a university, which was one of my reasons for choosing Vanderbilt University as the site for my M.Div. I wanted something different - a challenge. Don't get me wrong, I didn't come into grad school thinking it'd be a cake-walk. Even though I'm pretty well prepared (thanks Simpson College), I've already felt my thoughts and beliefs being stretched and challenged, and I appreciate that. But perhaps it's my wholesome Midwest sense of self that has betrayed me the most since being here in the South. There's a different mindset in this place that I'm still trying to navigate.

It's very evident that there are some brilliant students and faculty here, and I know I have a lot to learn, but also a lot to offer. Some may call that pride; I call it confidence. But sometimes, when all I'm looking for is casual conversation, the cut-throat academic predator starts to emerge from others, and I just can't take it. I realize many students are here to pursue their vocations/passions, or to figure out questions they have and find answers to them. That's totally cool - it's why I'm here too. But when social encounters become a contest to prove how much more someone knows than you, it makes it pretty difficult to want to interact with certain folks.

I feel kind of guilty admitting my angst over this - it probably makes me seem super selfish. If people are passionate about whatever theology, why should I be upset about that? They're just enthusiastic. Kind of like how I get when there is talk of running sports, Iowa, or food.... But there comes a time when excessive talk of things no one else can relate to just becomes rude. Let me paint a picture for you:

Recently I was at a divinity school function where I happened to be sitting at a table with all dudes, and I was the only woman. The table included a couple first years, a 2nd and 3rd year, and a PhD candidate or two. The conversation was primarily about differences in grammar and syntax of different languages (I know, WAY EXCITING). Since I only speak English and know minimal amounts of Spanish, there wasn't much I could contribute to the conversation. And it didn't help that at the time I was having a crisis of 'am I smart enough to be here?' lurking in the back of my mind. I tried to interject some jokes, even provided segues to other possible topics that everyone could have access to. Yet all of my attempts when either unnoticed or shrugged off. This went on for nearly half an hour. If I wasn't at an event where I had to sit at a table with these folks, I would have gotten up and left 20 minutes sooner.

I bring up this story as an example of a time when I tried to be heard, in a space where I'd expect voices of all kinds should be, and I wasn't. To be honest it was mostly because of the particular people who were present and perhaps the gender ratio (though I'm not saying male dominated groups are not ever aware to female voices/perspectives/presence...but PATRIARCHY). There have been many other instances similar to this one in the short time I've been here, in both formal and informal settings. But this moment left me with a lasting impression.

How important is listening? How can we be aware of when we need to be fully inclusive in conversations? And, most importantly for me, how should I react to these instances in the future - be humble or assertive?

Ideally, if one is seeking a position in ministry, listening is perhaps the most important skill to posess. And maybe that's why I was so surprised to be in an environment when I felt (at times) there wasn't much listening going on. I mean, I'm surrounded by future pastors every day - how come I feel like I'm not being heard?!?

But the truth is, not everyone is great at having conversation. I know I'm not all the time. And not everyone has been in a place where there is such a range of age, gender, expressions of sexuality, race or religious identity, or lack thereof. Sometimes we get nervous, we say things we don't know are sensitive, or use words that don't truly convey what we want them to. Our language is not one that easily forgives; it betrays us easily and frequently. Whether we are cognitive of that or not, we should be aware that people have voices, and if we are to be respectful of the person, we must also be respectful of their voice.

Sometimes we have a tendancy to segment a person from their actual body. I can acknowledge that a person is a human being with physical worth, but as soon as they open their mouth and say something I don't like, it becomes easier to dehumanize them. I find particular difficulty with this and those who speak hateful, untrue things about others... Bigoted, soul-splitting things... Certain political figures maybe? It becomes easier to render those people not human. Even on a lesser scale - when people talk about things that annoy us, or things we can't relate to - it becomes easier to disregard them as people not worth getting to know, or people without a heart and a past like you.

As much as I get annoyed when I can't say what I need to say or get cut-off mid-sentence and have to hold in a freak out, what I and others need to remember is that there is a time for speaking and a time for listening. Knowing the balance between the two is never clear-cut, but it is something we should all try and master if we want to make an impact among people. Even times when I feel "outnumbered" or as a lone representative of the female identity, having presence and listening can be a powerful thing, however subtle it is. This is not to say we should subject ourselves to being in spaces where speech is harmful to ourselves or others. (Pastoral advice 101: self-care includes your psychological state and THAT'S IMPORTANT.) There comes a point when those authority and assumed superiority need to be challenged. But we also need to be mindful of the situation, the people involved, and exactly why it is we feel like we're not being heard.

After talking with some people about my frustrations in this area, I've come to find out there's not really an easy way to address the issue. Some people just like to talk, and don't realize when they're neglecting other voices in the circle. Others feel an overbearing need to silence others as a means to assert themselves. Sometimes we just have to observe first and then find a way to approach creating an inclusive space for dialogue. It's pretty arbitrary, unfortunately. But such is life, right?

I will say that after expressing my concerns to individuals here, things have gotten much better. I'm also aware of those who I've felt silenced by before and only interact with them in smaller settings where there's not as much pressure to "stand out" in the crowd. It comes down to awareness, both of yourself and of others. And if I remember anything from this first semester at divinity school, I feel that's a pretty good lesson to have learned.

With peace,

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