Listening Can Speak Volumes

I do not have much interaction with those who lean to the political right.  The majority want nothing to do with me.  While that makes my life easier, it also makes it difficult to serve as any kind of change agent.  And our nation desperately needs change agents.

I have had a few opportunities to cross the divide.  Four years ago I spoke for a university affiliated with my former denomination.  My time with students and faculty went well, but when the professors wanted to bring me back, they ended up having to retract their invitation.  I receive five-figure paychecks for keynote addresses at state universities.  I spoke at the Christian university pro bono.  I even paid my own way.  But I guess having me back, even at my own expense, was a problem.

I was tentatively scheduled to speak at another Christian university when they surprised me with the news that I would not be allowed to speak alone on stage.  I would be followed by a second speaker who “does not believe being transgender is a thing.”  I told the folks that under those circumstances, I would not be willing to come.  They asked why and I said, “You are following me with a speaker who is denying the legitimacy of my basic identity.”  They didn’t see it that way.

Since that time, I have looked at the conservative world from a distance.  Last week I followed a social media thread of an evangelical friend who shared an article by a Christian who said he was going to vote for Joe Biden.  My social media feed includes few evangelicals, so it was a rare opportunity to look at how evangelicals responded.  While many were supportive, an equal number were not happy.  A lot of those folks were former acquaintances, mostly men, and white.  An inordinate number were focused on one thing – abortion.

Bob Woodward’s new book is yet another clear-eyed account of the narcissist who lives in the White House.  But here’s the thing, not many of those who were commenting on my friend’s shared post said anything about Donald Trump as a man.  No one defended his character.  They already know Trump’s flaws.  They will still vote for Donald Trump.  One said he was willing to vote for Trump based solely on the issue of abortion.

I know this is my own subjective reaction, but a lot of these folks seem frightened.  Their vision of America is fading, and they are not happy about it.  No amount of revelations about Donald Trump’s self-serving narcissism is going to change their minds.  They will vote for Donald Trump because their vision of a conservative (and white) America is fading.

But of course, all of that is my opinion, which might well cause them to point and say, “See, exactly!  Just one more liberal who thinks they know more about my life than I do.”  My opinion is not going to change anything, nor is their judgment of my opinion.  So, what actually will bring about change?

I am convinced two words have the ability to bring us together – narrative and proximity.  If we are physically close enough to be able to hear one another’s stories, we can begin to bridge the divide.  That is why I have been willing to speak at Christian universities pro bono. It is why I continue to refuse to lash out at those whose vitriol arrives in my inbox every week.  As we have seen graphically throughout the west, fanning flames does not put out fires; it spreads them.

I will be voting for Joe Biden in November.  I am proudly serving on his LGBTQ Believers Advisory Group.  But even if he is elected, it will not solve this great divide.  Until we come together and hear one another’s stories, the polarization will only increase.  A decent man in the White House is a good start, but it will not fix this divide.  An increase in knowledge about systemic racism is essential, but it will not fix this divide.  Only compassionate listening will heal our great divide.  And listening is not easy.

It is especially hard for me to listen when people tell me I am a freak, an abomination to God, and fuel for their nightmares.  In fact, the truth is that I cannot listen to those accusations.  It is damaging to my soul.  But I can listen to those same people tell me about their families, and the fact that they are working three jobs and still not earning enough to stay afloat.  I can listen as they tell me how their religion gives them hope in the midst of despair.  I can listen as they tell me how frightened they are of things they do not understand.  Listening can speak volumes.

I am reminded of the truth Jonathan Haidt talks about in The Righteous Mind.  Humans will change our minds, but only if new information comes to us in a non-threatening way.  As every parent knows when they tell a bedtime story, stories have the power to calm our souls.  They remind us that every last one of us is searching for love and hope and meaning.

I would love to hear stories from those willing to hear my story.  I have no problem finding takers whose stories are similar to mine.  While that it is nice, it does not heal our great divide.  Until our story-telling crosses the political divide, we will not restore decency to the conversation.  And if we do not restore decency to the conversation, I am afraid this great experiment in democracy will be over.  I want to be a part of the solution.  I want to listen.

21 thoughts on “Listening Can Speak Volumes

  1. Thank you for sharing that powerful message. My heart aches as I observe the growing divisiveness in our nation. We need more people like you who have the fortitude to stand in a safe place with others and listen to their stories. I believe that is our only hope for salvation.


  2. I use to be one of those folks on the “right.” My mother’s death four and half years ago changed everything. I was by her side when she breathed her last breath and I experienced God’s love like never before. I felt Light and Love pouring in and flowing out of every cell of my physical form and being. The clarity I sensed in my spirit and soul was like seeing through and being immersed in bright, crystal clear, shining, sparkling water; absolutely clean and perfectly pure. Over time the “high” faded, but the sense of digging deeper and being more connected to all of God’s beloveds has only intensified over time. You are a beautiful soul! Keep listening!!


  3. Paula, I am very sorry to hear about those who cannot open their hearts enough, and that send you horrible messages like the ones you described. I think you may be correct. Fear is a great driver. I’m not sure we share the same political views, but I respect yours nonetheless.


  4. Many of my evangelical brothers and sisters no longer consider me a “Christian”. When Obama was president, I was told that UCC/Congregationalists weren’t “really” Christian. How have so many forgotten that our first responsibility is love and inclusion? Christ exhorted us to care for the elderly (Social Security and Medicare), visit those in prison (we have mass incarceration), take care of children (how about an increase in Social Services, education and food stamps?) I am bewildered, there is so much anger – and a single issue – abortion. When I pointed out someone’s mis-characterization of one candidate’s stance on the abortion issue, I was told that “it’s still murder”. Presenting false information to your friends on social media is still lying and gossip. Where is the moral compass?


  5. I truly believe that those who are so vehemently against you and send you hateful messages will not change until it becomes personal for them. For some, it can be so easy to hate what one doesn’t understand or has not experienced on a personal level. And for many, they’ll eat those words one day. When I’ve been faced with hateful comments from people, it reminds me of what I do not want to become. Keep being you, Paula. ♥


  6. Dear Paula,

    This is Chloe from Hong Kong. I got to know you via Care 24 and your speech made me cry. I admire your courage to answer your call to authenticity, and I love how you talk about the hero’s journey and the deep dark cave. You are a great speaker. Thank you for speaking for all of us. I just want to share my story with you. I’d love to drop you an email but couldn’t find the address.

    I was born in China, raised as the only child in my family due to one-child policy and have been in Hong Kong for over a decade. I’m married to a gentle and kind husband who respects me, and I got a daughter. After watching your talk including your TedX talk, I had a conversation with my husband about how men didn’t take us seriously. I quoted your example of a passenger mistakenly took your seat in the plane. My husband, being open-minded which he always takes pride in, tried to rationalise it saying that it’s because men are physically stronger than women, this is natural just as we may not speak loud in front of a super strong man. He then went on to ask me whether I want to change the social norm and whether I would like to be a feminist. He said that “it’s easier to change yourself (ignore all the doubts / questioning and be confident) than changing others”. I replied that I agree that we women need to be more confident about ourselves, but are we the only people who need to change? Do men need to take part in that as well? I do not aspire to change the world, but at least I would like to raise my husband’s awareness. I want to raise my daughter so that she will be more confident than I was. He finally admitted that I was right.

    I always feel lucky that I live in HK where women enjoys a higher status compared to other countries in Asia. What surprises me is that even though my husband is gentle and respects me, who listens to what I say, still treats the gender differences as natural and all right.

    Your talk reminds me of my manager’s comment that I was seeking too much endorsement than necessary and dare not to voice out my own opinions. And after watching your TedX talk, I begin to wonder whether it’s our natural inclination that we have more self doubt or because how we were treated reinforced it.

    And I see many brilliant women who would settle for less just because they don’t have the confidence as their male counterparts do. I see so many women who do excellent at school / university but end up having a less successful career than their male counterparts because we didn’t apply for jobs that we thought we were not qualified for. While a prudent girl may do well at school, in a world that rewards creativity, innovation and risk taking, a woman may suffer from over prudence and lack of confidence.

    I took for granted that most caretakers are women and I also noticed my tendency to apologise. Everything that I feel so natural, feels so different when you speak. And I thank you for that. Hope to connect.

    Have a nice day.

    Best Wishes,


  7. Paula, at 84 years of age I am still learning–learning how very difficult it is to really “listen”! For me it has become the hardest discipline of all–true listening. I am realizing how very little I actually practice true listening. I am trying but usually I am not very successful at practicing true, pure attentive listening! I hope to get better at it–especially to hear the voice of God guiding me!


  8. >> I receive five-figure paychecks for keynote addresses at state universities. <<

    Spoken like a true alpha-male…

    PS Most of us have no idea of the world you move in (alpha-female), yet alone your previous one!


    • OK, first let me clarify. Paula, I love your TED talks and your blog posts. You’ve turned me on to Wm Paul Young and Richard Rohr and as an ex-evangelical I am so grateful.

      Yet, it seems to me you are still one of the 1% or at least you think like one and expect to be treated like one, an alpha-person. Have you any idea what it’s like to be median?

      Just sayin’…


  9. In 1967 MLK Jr is reported to have said… “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” This is how I feel about the times we are in. I believe with my whole heart that the peace warriors are out in front. Quietly, confidently, silently changing one heart at a time through stories and experiences. Insecurities are loud, and though that is what is dominating the media, it is minuscule when compared to the love and goodness that surrounds us each and every day. Keep listening!


    • I agree so much Maggie. I was speaking for an event at Mastercard last week, and when they asked what would bring about broad change in our culture, I said proximity and narrative. If we can get close enough to each other to hear each other’s stories, we can start bringing about change.


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