Listening Can Transform Relationships
Melvin Morse, February 22, 2017
Listening Can Transform Relationships
“Doc,” JZ whispered to me. “It’s about to be code red. Quick, get your hot water for your coffee. They ain’t gonna let you move during code red.” I was lost in my crossword puzzle. I had tried to get hot water earlier but the pot was still warming up. “C’mon Doc, quick like!” came the whisper. “You know you be liking dat expensive Taster’s Choice while you be doing dat old man puzzle.”
Earlier that morning, JZ had tidied up my bunk before bed inspection. “Lemme show you dis trick make your bed all tight-like,” he said to me as he flipped my mattress and tied a knot in the sheet, then flipped it back over again. He smoothed it out. He was right. Suddenly all the ripples and wrinkles that I never seemed to be able to get rid of were gone.
These small acts of kindness were astonishing to me, as we had had a contentious relationship for months. We shared a small 6 by 8 foot prison cell and did not share it graciously. In fact, every cough, every sigh, even slight movements seemed to have an ugly subtext that was ever present: we just didn't like each other.
JZ was 32 years old and straight from the ‘hood. He seemed incapable of ever standing or sitting straight, perpetually slouched against his bunk or nearly sliding off his seat, reminding me of a sullen teenager. I am a physician who was considered rich by JZ's standards. Each of us represented to the other a stereotype of different worlds in constant collision. From JZ's point of view, he was stuck with an older white man who represented all the oppression and intolerance which is a reality for young African American men from the inner cities. We had absolutely nothing in common. Initially, every interaction between us, even just making eye contact or incidental jostling as we dressed in the morning,was tinged with class warfare and racism on both of our parts.
In my daily interactions with JZ, I had a clear-cut choice; anger and bitterness or love and compassion. We all face this choice, no matter what particular path is our spiritual journey. Divorce, the loss of a job, injustice, incarceration, illness and trauma are only a few of a potential situations in which we can react with compassion or bitterness.
So how did JZ and I get from that contentious and unhappy space to one of mutual small acts of kindness? The answer lies in the healing power of active listening, with compassion and without judgment .
I started by listening to him, hearing his story. He was raised by a single mom who worked three jobs to support their family. He was the oldest of five brothers and sisters. There were no father figures in JZ’s life. He had no male teachers. He did not play sports.
One day when he was six years old, JZ spent an afternoon with the father he had never known before, only to witness him being shot and killed right before his eyes. He started smoking pot at age eleven. By age fifteen, he was hustling and selling drugs on the street. Soon he was buying his brothers and sister clothes and putting food in the refrigerator. He dropped out of school in 9th grade. By age 32, he had been incarcerated five times for a total of eight years.
The test of the spiritual path comes not in meditation or in church but in our relationships with our fellow men. I was put to such a test with JZ. The sages wrote that it is only by understanding the suffering of others can we break down the barriers which separate us. Our suffering is a gift which, in turn , allows us to understand our connection to all human beings.
Soon I began to see JZ not as an annoyance or a constant hostile irritant, but as my teacher. I stopped reacting defensively to his regularly challenging me. When I would become angry at his belittling comments or nit picking at how I kept my bunk, I would go to my breath, slowly breathing in and out. I meditated on his suffering and took it into my own heart and soul. His suffering became my own.
This is what the Buddhist sages called mind training. It is hard work. It is easy to give into resentment and anger. It was easy to judge JZ's action by my own fears and anxieties. When I listened to him and understood his pain, his journey, the barriers between us dissolved. We respected each other. Our constant irritation with each other became transformed into spontaneous acts of kindness and love.
I spent much of my career lecturing that we are here in this reality to learn our lessons of love. JZ was my first teacher. I went to prison and was forced to live those same lessons of love that I previously only lectured about. I directly experienced the suffering and the boundless miseries of others with whom I was imprisoned and felt it as my own. Only when I started to feel the pain of others did I begin to heal and awaken to my true self. This only occurred after my reputation was shattered. Only then did I discover what was important: The loving relationships I have with others.
We all have a story that needs to be told, and needs to be heard. It is very validating to tell your story to someone who listens, someone you trust, someone who cares.