Already-always listening

We talk in Creating Course Leaders about climbing a mountain with no top.

What I have discovered about my already-always listenings is that they exist in a well with no bottom.  As soon as one already-always listening is distinguished, another one is revealed, one layer beneath, down ever deeper into the person I wound up being.

I’m reminded of the final lines of Wallace Steven’s Sunday Morning:

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Downward to darkness, on extended wings: I experience an expansion of self-awareness as I dwell deeper and deeper in my already-always listening.  I have come to realize that everything I perceive is through these already-always listening multi-layered filters.

I meet another person and before they ever speak I have processed my perception of them though a complex system of signs and codes that calibrate my acceptance of their very being. Speech adds another set of filters. Prior or newly acquired background information about them fills in the gaps.  All this before actual experience.

Years ago I took a two-day interviewing skills seminar and the facilitator claimed that the majority of hiring decisions were made in the first ten seconds of an interview.

One story I tell about myself is that I have escaped the WASP strictures of my privileged white male upbringing, that I have grown into a progressive liberal man free from all the conservative stereotypes that label implies. And while this is true in a political sense, I know, now, that my already-always listening ingrained since birth is grinding away in the background. I know my hierarchies of what I regard as human acceptability.  I have been able to distinguish between openness in my head versus openness in my life.

I realize that while I may say I have few prejudices of race, sex, education, origin, style, or other markers of human potential, my comfort zone of friendship lies in a narrow range of parameters—very particular parameters defined idiosyncratically by the things and characteristics I value most, and aspire to, in my own life.

I once compiled a list of the one hundred books one must have read to be regarded as a civilized human being; and I meant it. I have preferential, already-always listening, hierarchies of colleges and universities, States, musical taste, countries and nationalities, clothes (shoes!), physical size (obese people trigger an automatic negative response: they’ve lost control of their lives), food and dining, the list goes on and on—or deeper and deeper into that bottomless well of already-always listening. All of the boxes are rarely ticked.

While once I might have characterized these traits as discriminating, in a good sense, I realize now how confining these already-always listening filters have narrowed my life experience.

Distinguishing these layers of already-always listening is heavy going, revealing layer under layer. Ultimately it’s liberating, allowing for the possibility that I can be free to be and free to act.

A final story (with due respect for our avoidance of storytelling).

Five years ago I was traveling alone on a month-long trip centered on my son’s wedding in Finland. I was visiting Tallinn, Estonia for a few bitter cold days between Christmas and New Years, having come directly from Finnish Lapland a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. There were few tourists in Tallinn, and the nights were long, cold, and dark.  Having spent many enjoyable evenings in old-style, wood-fired saunas in Finland with the brother of my new daughter-in-law, I decided to find something similar in Tallinn.

I located a likely candidate outside the old city walls of the city. I walked through an unfamiliar working class neighborhood to find the place, hesitant to enter given its down-market exterior and sketchy environs. Nevertheless I went in. A group of guys in the undressing area were in the final stages of a drunken post holiday celebration. They paid no attention to me. I showered and entered the dark, exceptionally hot sauna, where about ten men were sitting in silent steamy contemplation.

There’s not much to know about ten naked men sitting in a sauna in a foreign country. Doctors or ditch-diggers? Professors or thieves? Old school communists or progressive reformers? No way of knowing. My already-always listening feared the worst and I was apprehensive.

After a while one guy observed, in perfect English, “you’re not from around here.”  I explained I was from San Francisco, en route from my son’s Finnish wedding. Immediately I had ten new friends: instant chatter about Obama and the American elections; the silliness of Mitt Romney, the emerging dangers of conservative politics. The men wanted to know everything about me and my life—all well-informed, in comprehensible English. With no embarrassment one man offered to beat me with his bound birch leaf branches, and I accepted. I stayed for hours. The evening turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, profoundly human, experiences of my trip.

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