I once worked with a physician, Dr. Hohlkopf, a dreary, discourteous fellow who never looked up when anyone spoke to him, never granted others the slightest glance of curiosity or a soupcon of attention. He was always busy-busy, always harried, always impatient with nurses and attendants who vied for his advice or hoped in vain for his vacant attentions.
Dr. Hohlkopf’s unpunctuated motto was “…What is it I‘m busy….” His frazzled, brittle persona sent the intended message that he had no time for anyone; no time to listen or attend to the concerns or accomplishments of others; too busy to engage the intrusive subordinates who were subservient to his whims. No way. He was a busy-busy person, too pre-occupied to honor the simple, but significant, courtesies of life or respect the bedside empathies which so often ease the healing process.
Among the many furtive underlings who worked for Dr. Hohlkopf was Nurse Furchtbar, an assistant known for her medicinal savvy and her energetic penchant for accuracy. Under Dr. Hohlkopf’s impervious facade, Nurse Furchtbar’s performance was sometimes marred by the flutter of her fragile ego and by minor emotional eruptions which bubbled up from her font of anxious tics and mounting frustrations.
One afternoon, Nurse Furcthbar sought to clarify the precise wording of a report Dr. Hohlkopf had distractedly dictated. With visible apprehension, she approached him (for the third time, mind you) seeking his deserved attention. Dr. Hohlkopf greeted her with customary dismissive flippancy: “What is it I’m busy….”
With that, Nurse Furchtbar lost it. Her frayed restraint melted as she tossed a handful of papers skyward, stomped her foot several times and, with quavering tremolo, unloosed a scathing monologue which she’d repressed for ten years.
Nurse Furcthbar enumerated a litany of Dr. Hohlkopf’s insults and the barrage of rebuffs she had endured over the years. She even mentioned his unsavory habit (“disgusting … disgusting habit”) of cleaning his teeth with the nail of his little finger.
Soon, heads were popping out of patient rooms up and down the corridors. On she went. Her voice grew louder as her list grew longer, but her final zinger was most memorable, when she shouted, “You never, ever listen. Damn you, you never listen to anyone. You do not care for anyone…. All you know is charts and money, but you do not have a heart… There is no poetry in your soul ...”
That was many years ago when listening to others with intensity and concentration was new. Since then, I have come to recognize what a treasured moment it is to be truly involved in listening to someone, what a gracious gift to be listened to, truly listened to. And I have come to recognize how absolutely fundamental it is for our mental health and our spiritual good that – somewhere, sometime – someone listens to us, hears us and, hopefully, understands.
As Dr. Hohlkopf would say… “Yes, yes …we know all that, but what’s your point… what IS your point???”
The point is this: The ability and desire to communicate are as deeply rooted in human nature as breathing. I have said elsewhere in these essays that we cannot not communicate. Our need to communicate and to be heard underpins everyone’s search for a responsive listener to whom we may grant our trust and speak our heart. This is the soul’s deepest hope. It originates in our need to form relationships with others to whom we may grant our trust, share our hope and, God willing, express our love.
But, contrarily, we learn early in life to be on guard and protect ourselves. Emotional vulnerability, caution and the survival instinct too soon o’ershadow innocence. Our original preternaturality is too soon blemished by the harsh indignities of thoughtless, self-serving egos.
Language Of The Soul
Nonetheless, our innate desire to communicate endures and we evolve a language which has no rival, i.e., the language of the soul. This is a spiritual -- as well as a verbal – language. Its meanings are often coded in allusions or cloaked in images which carry meaning far beyond our spoken words.
This language of the soul is not bound by the oddities of dialect, the boundaries of syntax or the rules of grammarians. The language of the soul expresses itself in terms which are subtle, nuanced, often hesitant for fear of rejection or judgment. It is often wordless, intuitive and imaginative, endlessly creative, sometimes symbolic and story-filled, given to reflection, to fancy and fantasy, to dreams and memories.
I emphasize “spiritual” because -- after many decades of listening to troubled humans -- I know we do not live, nor are we made better, solely by-and-for our material wants. We are, first and foremost, spiritual beings, born into a material world but not confined by its limiting fears and earth-bound aspirations. Our intimate hopes and deeper needs are never resolved by greater materiality, never fulfilled by the accumulation of stuff, never eased by the envious adulation of those who know nothing about us.
Answers to the needs of the heart are not found in statistics nor in sports, not in profit-and-loss jargon nor bank statements, not in wealth or power, not in the tribal rites of self-promotion or in the selfish rituals of hubristic conquest which still prevail in our culture.
The needs of the heart find no compatibility with the de-personalizing estrangements of electronic gadgetry nor in the pseudo-sociability of Facebook’s fallacious entanglements. We are gifted with spiritual inclinations, virtuous instincts and heavenward ideals. The more we deny this central ingredient of our being, the greater our discontent, the more perplexing our dis-ease, the more nagging our lingering sense of futility in what we seem to achieve.
The Focused Message
If we focus and watch as we listen; if we seek to hear with our eyes as well as our ears; if we listen intently to the messages and the deeper rhythms of another person’s communication (or to our own), we will recognize that the yearnings of our hearts speak to us in that unique language of the soul.
For many people, there is a problem in all this. The language of the soul and the truths it reveals are alien, even threatening, to many people. Thus, these truths are initially difficult to face and discern, even more difficult to translate into action. This is because the act and the art of listening (even to one’s own interior dialogues and the truths they contain) demand discipline, humility, self-abnegation and no-nonsense, hard-core candor. For many people, telling the truth is risky … but hearing the truth, especially about oneself, is fearsome.
The language of the soul involves the heart’s poetic instincts of which Nurse Furcthbar spoke. This opens us to the world of our spiritual selves, to the world of our interior lives, to the myths we devise, the imaginative fantasies we weave, the memories we harbor. Herein do we encounter our unexplored selves, shorn of defenses and exposed to personal truths. It is herein that we hone (for better or worse) our singular vision of reality.
Our imagination easily and often flies freely beyond the constraints of social orthodoxy to create distinct personal visions which can be expressed only in acts of utter originality; interior acts of private creativity and intuition, inspired by the sometimes wacky “what if” and “if only” scripts we devise in the serene comfort of our soul’s blessed introspection.
In real life, we seldom express how we truly feel but when we are alone and our poetic juices flow, the sky’s no limit. And it is here that we will find the roots of meditation and prayer and authentic spirituality, which are our links to Divinity … if, that is, we but look and seek … and listen………
This is poetry at its spiritual roots. Clearly, this poetic language of the soul is deeply personal, idiosyncratic, entwined in the complexity of our emotions which exude nobility or shame, delight or rage, elation or sadness. And, as with so much in life, we always have choices; we can seek goodness or harm, virtue or wrongdoing. We can pursue the salacious or the altruistic, the generous or the punitive. We always have that choice. And it is here that moral awareness and a commitment to the moral life become crucial for our humane development.
Risking The Self
When we attempt to open our hearts and reveal our interior life to others, it is often done without words: by a fleeting gesture, a cautious touch, a tender smile, a sidewise glance returned … all of which speak volumes, yet in declarative silence.
But, as we said above, pain and disappointment can overwhelm the hopeful heart. We learn too soon to use words defensively, to stifle clarity, to avoid truth, to embrace the lie, to becloud meaning, to create distractions or construct deceptive diversions. Thus do we stymie our spiritual selves, and thereby nurture disillusion and cynicism, defining ourselves as untrustworthy.
So, it is with these fundamental sensibilities that the soul announces its uniqueness and the heart declares its dreams … and, through it all, wonders to itself: Is Anybody Listening?
The Long Haul
From our first days on this earth, we grab onto life’s energies and never cease to search for enduring relationships with people who will, we hope, support us and stay the course as true and loving friends.
As we grow in age and, hopefully, in wisdom, we will recognize that others are on the same searching path with us. We will respect the fact that their hearts and souls are also driven to communicate so that they, too, may find spiritual relief and emotional sustenance in a relationship of lasting value, a relationship in which the giving and receiving of love are central -- and safe.
We all seek that leader or that group, that family or that special friend whom we can trust and, in due time, learn to love. But we also learn that we cannot truly love anyone whom we cannot truly trust.
The Love To Which We Are Born
We are born to give and receive love; this divine energy is built into our very nature. Karol Wojtyla, the remarkable philosopher, wrote that human beings “cannot live without love.” In his document “Redeemer of Man” he says that without love we remain beings who are incomprehensible to ourselves; our lives are senseless if love is not revealed to us, if we do not encounter love, if we do not experience love and make it our own; if we do not participate intimately in it.
In the long view, as we search for someone whom we can trust, we recognize that trust is a two-way street, that others seek that same hopeful connection as we do. And we come to realize that trust is more than reliance. We rely on many people for various tasks and services. Real trust takes time and stability and patience and character …. and human weakness always hovers. But weakness also attests to the need for repentance and forgiveness as part of learning to trust, then to love.
Even with superficial acquaintances and in unsavory hook-ups, these universal realities apply, although they are likely to be most easily and quickly abused when the “relationship” is shallow and the cost is cheap.
So, it is a wise person who recognizes and honors the dignity of others which underlies the search we all share. It is the wise person who knows that lasting trust and reliable love are earned, not given carelessly nor granted casually to those who treat the moral life and the needs of the heart with cavalier insouciance.
If properly nurtured with prudence and insight, weighing the values involved, not avoiding the evidence and being honest with oneself, rightly-bestowed trust is the doorway to giving one’s heart to another in true and loving friendship.
Such giving is, of course, a rare and endearing experience. In human terms, it finds grand expression in the solemnizing act of traditional marriage, in the exchange of vows, in the hope of creating new life and in the lifetime of fidelity such generous love foreshadows.
It is within such precious friendship that the language of the soul can be heard … loud and clear, for a lifetime --- and beyond…..
Spero News columhnist Daniel Boland PhD is a clinical psychologist.