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A Listening Love

“The first duty of love is to listen” said theologian Paul Tillich.  I was reminded of those wise words by two speakers at the September 13 TED talks event in Winnipeg.

Dr. Zahra Moussavi has discovered new techniques for early detection of Alzheimer’s and has created a series of brain exercises that can slow its debilitating effects. The inspiration for Ms. Moussavi’s work was her own mother’s Alzheimer’s. Her mother lived in Iran and every year when she visited Zahra in Winnipeg her daughter noticed some mental deterioation in her lively, intelligent mother, yet doctors could detect nothing wrong and had no suggestions for therapy. Although Dr. Moussavi’s ground breaking research came too late to help her own mother she is hoping it can help other people. Dr. Moussavi said that once her mother’s memory loss was advanced she realized the one gift she could give her was to LISTEN.  Her mother told the same stories over and over again and instead of getting frustrated Zahra tried to listen with respect and interest. Her careful attention to each retelling of her mother’s stories was an act of love. 

Karyn Gagnon, a Winnipeg middle school teacher and another TED Talk speaker gave a moving address about the revolutionary changes that could happen in society if only we would listen to one another with patience and respect. She began by telling us a story her Polish grandmother told her many times. As a young woman her grandmother was doing cleaning work in a church and in the process accidentally spilled a container of holy water. Karyn was such a great storyteller that we listened with avid interest. She said her grandmother would tell that story repeatedly almost everytime Karyn saw her. Karyn tried to LISTEN to the story with new ears and active attention each time. It was her gift of love to her grandmother. To make her point Karyn retold the exact same story at the end of her talk and honestly it was every bit as engaging the second time. Retelling the story was a very effective way for her to make the point that having the right attitude can make you an active listener no matter how many times you’ve heard a story. 

My mother is an excellent listener.  She takes time to listen to everyone, but in particular her children. Growing up we knew we would have her full attention when we wanted to share things with her. During the busiest part of my life when I was teaching, parenting and doing all kinds of free lance writing and community service, Mom and I used to go on early morning walks for an hour or so five days a week. It was such a joy to have that time to talk to her, because she really listened and I could tell her about the myriad of things going on in my life. It helped me stay grounded and sane.  I remember once a sibling of mine had something great happen to them and they said, “I didn’t believe it was true till I had talked to Mom about it.”  I think my Mom personifies the listening kind of love Paul Tillich talks about.  Although I’m not nearly as good at it as my Mom, I’m trying hard to return the favor of her listening love by listening to her, and to the other people in my life. Since I LOVE to talk it’s definitely something I need to work at.  

The first duty of love is to listen. 

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