The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention.
I lost my voice recently due to a common cold. The first night it happened, we were having people over for dinner and a bonfire. I didn’t cancel because I felt fine, but I could barely speak, and when I did, it took a lot of effort and was painful. So, I let everyone know my situation when they arrived—no big deal.
Oh, but it was a big deal and I learned this within the first five minutes.
I’m usually the one twirling stories and chiming in to make sarcastic comments. I’m also the summoner—the one who robustly announces: “Dinner will be ready in 20 minutes. I suggest you grab your final aperitif and venture to the parlor for some games.” Or something like that. This evening, I was pretty much mute—unable to let my husband know the steaks needed tending or call the dogs inside, and I certainly couldn’t spin an enthusiastic tale about my hysterical day with preschoolers.
I was nothing without my voice.
Then I decided, instead of being all “boo hoo” about it, I’d just lean into it. And a crazy thing happened—all my other senses came to life, especially my hearing. Yes, my ears were as fine-tuned as a bat’s, although I’m still working on my echolocation skills. I could hear the chipmunks squeaking with delight while nibbling their late-night snacks. I noticed the frogs in our pond stopped croaking, and the crackling of the bonfire was electric.
Later in the evening, as the libations flowed freely, my husband began to tell a story in which I was involved. I enjoyed sitting back and allowing him the stage… until his version of the story went sideways. He turned and looked at me with a wry smile and continued with his tall tale of which I could NOT verbally contest—and he knew it. It was my incredulous smile, combined with the frenetic waving of arms that spoke volumes as we all broke up into tears. Unfortunately, the audience that evening will never know the true story. Which, by the way, is way better when I tell it.
By day two, I discovered half of what I think I need to say is necessary. In turn, I began to choose when I was going to use my voice; what absolutely warranted my words? It was surprisingly so little. Especially now that we can text and email ourselves silly. My responses to friends or coworkers were minimal. I didn’t initiate conversations or ask follow-up questions. My teenager heard less nagging, and I enjoyed nagging less. Selective speaking became my mantra.
Once my pipes came back, I continued to fine tune my ears by listening to different types of music and walking in unique environments. I strolled the urban streets of Bayonne, New Jersey while visiting my sister. From sirens to gurgling air-condition units and old Italian men playing cards in the park, the town was alive! I would usually overlook such activity while yammering away on my cellphone, or texting while AirPods blare the Grateful Dead.
While it is part of my personality to chit chat and make people laugh, sometimes just being quiet and absorbing is as fulfilling. The sounds of Bayonne were a world away from the chirping chippies my dogs chase or the elk that bugle me to sleep. But there is beauty to be found in each—you just have to pay attention.