The Lost Art of Listening

Birth Home of Martin Luther King, Jr
Photo Credit: Gary Tarleton, NPS, HFC

In January of 2016, I visited the Atlanta childhood home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Located in a small neighborhood within a short walk from the Ebeneezer Baptist Church, where father and son King both presided as pastor during their careers, the Victorian-style home was painted in a cheery yellow. On my visit, I learned of the family’s practice of family dinners. And the lost art of listening.

Conversation was a critical aspect of the family’s meals together. They discussed the news of the day, sermons by MLK, Jr’s father, shared stories and lessons that informed how the King children would view the world and instilled a sense of responsibility in their civic life. It seemed they were practicing the lost art of listening.  

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would later make famous a quote about the importance of listening that is still applicable today:

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A pivotal relationship in my life was a friendship with a man named Lingiam (Lee) Odems, Jr. Our lived experiences were different—he, a Black man, and me, a White woman. We started a conversation that lasted years, until his passing in 2020. We shared stories, raised difficult questions, compared varying perspectives in our understanding of the South, of race, of police stops, of popular culture, of the meaning of historical moments. We gave each other reading assignments and writing ideas. We also laughed, a lot (because that’s what friends do), and we discussed what it means to live a life on purpose. But most of all, we listened.

On Martin Luther King, Jr Day, I have often celebrated by watching a documentary about King or a video of one of his speeches. I have read his famous writings and pondered the wisdom of his words. While always inspiring, I don’t plan to do any of those things this year.

This year, I plan to listen.

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