by Troy Chapman
George played a note on the piano and asked the singing students to repeat it. “You need to play it louder,” said one of the men, and several others voiced agreement. “Yeah, we can’t hear it.” George, a slim, animated man, sprang from behind the keyboard and, with his hands unconsciously conducting his words, told them, “No. You need to listen more closely. I’m intentionally playing the note softly so you’re not relying on it hitting you on the head. I want you sitting forward with your minds focused, not lounging in your chairs only half-here.”
He played the note again just as softly. But this time heads were slightly cocked and faces were set in concentration. The students immediately and accurately repeated the note, and seemed surprised by the power of their own ears.
In life, I often feel the way these singers did when George played the first note: As if life isn’t speaking loudly or clearly enough for me to quite catch what’s going on. People say things or behave in ways that leave me shaking my head. Many of us experienced this recently with the Virginia Tech rampage where 33 people died senselessly. We’re talking about wisdom this month, and I don’t feel wise enough to understand this.
But it’s not only the dramatic stuff; simple rudeness and pointless, petty cruelty leave me shaking my head in the same way. At such times I understand that being wise isn’t always about knowing or being able to explain things in a satisfactory way. Sometimes it’s about standing in uncertainty, in not-knowing.
The question of whether we’re wise or not at such times is answered by how we stand in this place. Do we jump to the safety of anger and self-righteousness? Do we engage in our act of pretending we know and try to distract ourselves and others from our ignorance? Or do we sit forward in our chairs like the singers on their second try, alert and listening for the soft-spoken truth of whatever it is we are faced with?
We listen with our ears, but there are things we can hear only by listening with our whole being, as if we’re literally “all ears.” Indeed, the deepest and truest parts of life consist of such things.
We can listen to everything this way: To the earth as it moves through its cycles, to trees growing, to animals going about their business, to children, wives, husbands, family, the angry and violent, the grieving, our enemies, and ourselves — both our minds and our bodies. And this kind of rapt listening, though it knows nothing, is the very essence of wisdom. It results in a wordless knowing of things that’s too big to fit in the head, but is more valid and relevant than most of what we know by normal means.
Picture yourself as one of my singers, straining to hear that soft note, being still so even the rustling of your clothing won’t interfere. Take a minute to feel the energy of this inner posture. Now imagine it as an attitude of life and directed toward the world, inside yourself and the world outside.
I’m sure you’ve had moments of this kind of rapt attention. We all have. It’s in these moments that we catch glimpses of the truth behind the truth. Knowing that other truth is there, and listening for it at times, will not only make us more wise, but is itself an aspect of wisdom.