I recently chatted with a friend, Grace, who is losing her hearing. Frustrated with others telling her to get out of the house and be more sociable, Grace started carrying cotton balls with her. At the first hints of such advice, Grace would pull out the cotton and ask the well-intended advisor to put the cotton in their ears. Slightly startled and questioning, they nonetheless did as requested. Grace giggled a bit as she recounted the transformation her family, acquaintances, and friends experienced with cotton in their ears.
In restaurants, Grace would watch as the cotton worked its magic and folks had to ask wait staff to repeat specials, speak louder, and try to block ambient noise now crowding in. At pharmacy counters, impatient customers whispered and shuffled as Grace's cotton-laden friends attempted to ask important questions about new medications. Grace watched as her friends' anxiety levels rose and frustration tolerance crashed.
At home, Grace's family began to experience some of her exhaustion and irritability when the ocean-like roaring caused by the presence of the cotton in their ears went unceasing for the hours she asked them to keep it in.
Grace had no idea, as she related these stories, how brilliant her lesson in empathy was.
For her, cotton was merely the tool of a desperate woman.
I pondered Grace's cotton this evening.
I recently chatted with other friends around issues of racism, advocacy, what is/is not offensive, who defines what is offensive to whom, and how we might respond to the offense/offendedness, as it were, of others.
I pondered further Grace's cotton.
I wonder if an experiment in stuffing a bit of cotton in our ears would help us all hear each other better. This appears rather contradictory on the surface of it, given that Grace purposed her cotton to illustrate the life of the hearing impaired, but bear with me.
I generally assume I understand you when I hear what you say when you say it. If I like what you say on the surface of it, I agree and am pleased. If I do not, I may disagree, experience feelings of hurt, offense, or myriad other negative emotions.
Either way, a question remains. Did I truly understand your meaning.
Enter Grace's cotton.
Grace's cotton is for the hearing impaired. It slowed her friends and family down. It helped them reassess their assumptions about her life. It assisted them in seeing (or hearing) from her point of view. It crowded in with the ambient noise of whatever context they were in. It forced them to ask questions, seek repetition, and manage their responses until they fully understood what was being communicated.
So as I discussed racism from my white perspective with an African American friend, I had a choice: to hold tightly to my preconceived and Webster's dictionary notions, or to put a little cotton in my ears and listen harder, talk less, focus more, ask questions when I did not fully understand his ideas, express my thoughts as clearly as possible, and manage my responses throughout the communication.
As I read of or discuss things that offend/hurt/upset/trigger others which to me appear benign, perhaps a little cotton in my ears might help again. Help me listen harder, talk less, focus more, ask questions, express myself clearly, and manage my responses for good communication.
Ecclesiastes 5:2 has long offered me a much needed reminder of this very idea:
Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.
For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.
Granted, the context for Ecclesiastes refers to letting our hasty and impulsive words be few in the house of God. Our fellow humans, however, are holy Image Bearers of God. I daresay, we owe one another a measure of reverence as such, at least inasmuch as we are called to love others as we love ourselves.
I believe I will keep some of Grace's cotton handy for myself from now on.