You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.
M. Scott Peck
I watch my son sit on the couch with a cup of tea when he comes to pick up his daughter after a long day at work; he pulls out his cell phone and disappears. Tugs for attention from his 3 year-old are met at first with, “Just a minute.” Soon he will resurface and become a fully engaged dad who romps and reads and interacts and loves and listens, but that brief glimpse gives me an inkling of what Sherry Turkle reports in her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation.
Jesus said to his disciples, “As I have loved you” -- as I have traveled with you, shared meals and conversations and silence with you, spent time face-to-face with you – “so you also should love one another.”
And yet we live in a culture where “face-to-face” interaction is increasingly rare and, for some, even scary. Turkle reports that a lot of kids are growing up with parents who are never more than half-there, constantly absorbed in their texts and emails. When my husband and I were at a small café in northern California last month, I watched parents in the next booth hunch over their respective cell phones while their son, about 12 years old, stared silently out the window. Kids growing up in this kind of eerie silence haven’t experienced deep listening, so they haven’t learned how to understand and empathize with others; they don’t know how to interact in person.
Some stories from Turkle’s book: a father tells of chaperoning his daughter’s 2nd grade field trip, during which he took hundreds of photos with his cell phone. On the long bus ride back, he spent an hour sending the photos out to various friends and texting about where they’d been, totally ignoring his daughter sitting beside him until she finally said, “Dad, put your phone away.” He’d been texting about her, but he never actually talked with her. This father later admitted that he didn’t know how to have a conversation with an 8-year-old. No wonder a college student reflects, “It’s very special when someone turns away from a text and silences their phone; it sends a signal that they are there, they are listening to you.” But it doesn’t happen very often. A college sophomore states that she would never confront her roommate about a serious issue face-to-face. “It’s too emotional.” They text. A high school senior responds, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with face-to-face conversation! It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say” (unlike a text, which you can edit).
Sherry Turkle acknowledges that, unlike texting, actual “human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding.” That’s what unnerves a lot of young people these days, but that, precisely, is where Jesus calls us to take our children and grandchildren: into that mess, into empathy with one another, into love. Those lonely college sophomores who share a room but not a conversation aren’t likely to develop much a friendship. And that high school senior terrified of face-to-face real time conversation, how will he survive a job interview, let alone the intricacies of love? Like that father on a field trip, like those parents at Woodrose Café, will he find himself in years to come unable to talk with his own child?
Perhaps Jesus might add another phrase to his commandment: that we listen to one another as a way of learning to love.