“Skillful listening is the best remedy for loneliness, loquaciousness, and laryngitis” (William Arthur Ward).
MANY PEOPLE LISTEN WHEN OTHERS SPEAK, BUT NOT MANY LISTEN SKILLFULLY — OR ATTENTIVELY. The sounds of others’ words may enter our ears, but we may not concentrate on them or make any effort to exclude other thoughts while we listen. Even when we’re somewhat attentive, the purity of our attention is often lacking. But when we fail in our attentiveness to others, look at the benefits that we lose. Skillful listening really is, as Ward humorously suggests, the best cure for “loneliness, loquaciousness, and laryngitis.”
But attending to the words of others is only a species of attentiveness in general. Not only do we need to pay attention to what others say, but we need to pay attention to life. Life in this world is too precious — and too full of joy — to let it flow past us unobserved, unenjoyed, and unappreciated. Our attention must be selective, of course, for not everything in the world deserves being focused upon, but there are many fascinating things that are worthy of our concentration, and we need to learn the habit of attending to these things.
Memory experts tell us that memory is a function of attentiveness: we remember longest the things we pay the most careful attention to. In my experience, I have found this to be only partially true. To remember something, we have to do more than pay attention; we have to pay attention with interest. I agree with Tryon Edwards, who said, “The secret of a good memory is attention, and attention to a subject depends upon our interest in it. We rarely forget that which has made a deep impression on our minds.” So to remember someone’s name, you’re going to have to be genuinely interested in them!
One meaning of “attentive” is “marked by devoted attention to the pleasure or comfort of others” (American Heritage Dictionary). In the end, that’s why attentiveness is so important. It gets us out of ourselves and our own little world. It connects us to the larger reality that we’re a part of and opens our hearts to active, other-centered love.
“Pleasure-seeking is a barren business; happiness is never found till we have the grace to stop looking for it, and to give our attention to persons and matters external to ourselves” (J. I. Packer).