Why bother listening at all? What I learned from my grandpa

May 30, 2016
My grandfather was a man of many stories… He had stories that I hadn’t ever heard and stories that I heard over and over again.
I’m certain that, like all parents, he made mistakes when he was raising my mother and her brother and her sister. My uncle was married many many many times and I grew up in a family with its own set of issues. The extremeness, in some ways, of the lives that (at least) my mom and my uncle lived, would speak to significant childhood stuff.
I’m blessed. I don’t know what these mistakes were. While I experienced the fallout from whatever went down all those years ago, I don’t know any stories.
There are hints I can uncover, if I pay attention: one of my most common memories is of my grandpa playing the lottery all the time. And I know that he frequented Cripple Creek (in Colorado) and wanted to take me there when I went to visit him in Colorado Springs, but I was too young (16) to go on the premises.
Another memory is faint—but it’s connected to scent, which they say is our strongest memory. The scent is what I later, as an adult, connected with alcohol, although I don’t remember ever—even in my 20s—seeing my grandfather with a drink.
Last puzzle piece—I know that my mom has told me that at one point, my grandmother left him and stayed somewhere for safety. That’s one of those puzzle pieces that you maybe uncover once, but then it vanishes when you go back and try to find it. Instead you’re told “I didn’t say that.” Or “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Perhaps it’s an inaccurate memory, but I’m not sure where I’d make that up from.
So, here’s the thing.
My grandfather was also a vet and he served in Vietnam. A retired USAF soldier. He wanted to be a doctor and had planned on going back to school.
He was a businessman, who together with my grandma, ran a delivery (mail) business once they retired to the Springs.
And, my grandfather, who was raised blue blood Democrat, had political ideas that differed greatly from mine. He was raised Democrat, but he had decided after, I’m not sure what, that Democrat wasn’t for him. No more unions. I never asked him why, but I know that his experience at war changed things for him. He was one of those soldiers with buddies who were hugged by little kids holding bombs. That changes a man. He also had a guy who tried to kidnap him once—in a taxi—and my grandfather threatened to kill him, knife in his back and everything.
My grandfather had racist tendencies. I think it’s probably a holdover from his generation, and when I look at it like that, I wonder what the holdover from my generation will be when or if I have grandkids. I mean, will they be all about implanted technology, and I’ll be so behind because I think that if someone has implanted technology, then they’re a robot? And therefore not a human? Who knows.
But, what I do know is this.
My grandfather taught me about respect—he taught me how to respect (and love!) people whose ideas you disagreed with. He taught me this mostly through example—because there were social justice and economic things that we saw differently. Conversations about these weren’t ever things that we courted, or sought out, but I worked at a church, and so they popped up. Also, I was a graduate student, studying theology, and so we’d disagree about what was in the Bible, or what was in the Koran. We argued about Muslims and what they wanted and believed. It wasn’t ever fun, and it wasn’t what I’d want to talk about, but I did learn that it was possible to love someone with whom you strongly disagreed.
Dialogue. Listening. It matters. It helps us from turning someone into “Other” into “foreign” The moment we do that is the moment we take away their dignity and their personhood. Well, we don’t actually take it away, that isn’t possible, but we choose to ignore it and we remove it from our understanding of that person. When we set aside someone’s personhood, we take the individual out of the equation and we miss what makes them them—by de-personizing someone, it becomes easier to hold opinions without verifying their truth. It also becomes easier to dismiss someone’s ideas if we don’t see them as a person. Because if they aren’t a person, what do they have to offer? What could they possibly contribute to the conversation?
And this, this lesson that’s oh so valuable, is what I learned from my grandpa. There was no way that I was going to deperson him—he meant too much to me, and had always been there for me when I needed him. So I listened. And I was curious and inquisitive. I asked questions. And I stood my ground about where I disagreed. When we would hit impasses, we’d stop and then regroup. And that was totally okay. He didn’t expect me to change, and I figured that at his age, he wasn’t necessarily going to change his mind either. I think that for both of us, it was an experiment in listening. A trial run of being with.
What does it mean to be with someone? So often we here that phrase—“ just be with her” or “him.” It sounds nice, but what does it tangibly translate into? I believe that it means that you are with someone, paying attention to their experience, not judging it, but rather holding it in a place of acceptance. It can be acceptance of how its ruined things—as in the case of a child molester or a murder—but you just sit with them.
Different scenarios/relationships also merit different sorts of standards and responses.
Being with someone also means accepting them as they are. Accepting someone as they are doesn’t mean you like it or agree with it, but it means that you pay attention to what they say. You listen to it. The incredible bit is that by listening, you keep yourself open to what’s happening.
See, we can be different and still get along.

See, we can be different and still get along (but actually, really, when do cats look this comfortable?).

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