THE SEVENTEEN TRADITIONS
1. The Tradition of Listening
One day, when she was in her mid-eighties, my mother and I were flying to California. Seated behind us was a young man. He started speaking with his seatmates before the doors to the airplane closed; kept talking as the plane took off; and was heard chatting over the Alleghenies, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the fertile California valleys, and into San Francisco. He never stopped talking, except to gulp down a meal and visit the restroom. When we landed, Mother turned to me.
"He didn't learn much in the past five hours, did he?" she said.
Listen more than you speak, and think before you speak my mother told us from the time we were old enough to do either, and over time we heard her until it was no longer necessary. To our parents, other children seemed to talk too much, and much of it was sheer nonsense and mischief that went well beyond the normal exuberance of youth. That wasn't going to happen with their offspring. My mother was determined to make sure all her children knew how to listen -- not because she wanted to discipline us, or because she put a premium on peace and quiet, but because she wanted us to learn.
Learning how to listen was a core, if subtle, part of our early education. Mother gave us endless opportunities to listen, as she poured history, insight, advice, neighborhood events, and family stories from her ancestors into our absorbing minds. She also reenacted in installments celebrated sagas such as the story of Joan of Arc, and drew on her memories of dramatic historical events and their meaning for the present.
Both my mother and my father grew up in the folk culture of Lebanon, before the era of radio and television, before even electricity had arrived in their midst. There were no distant voices channeled into their living rooms or headphones. Instead their listening came from two sources: other human beings and nature itself, all of it obviously nearby. For example, one ever-present sound in their lives was the braying of donkeys, found trudging everywhere, carrying their masters and all kinds of loads. An entire folklore embracing donkey stories and jokes -- often featuring a peasant foil named Jeha, along with the classic fables of Bidpai -- was part of the storytelling inheritance they absorbed daily. If you didn't listen, how could you remember these jokes to share with your friends? It wasn't as if there were donkey joke websites to refresh their memories. The ear sharpens the memory, and my parents' generation had a trained capacity for listening during the interactions of daily life, if only because they had no alternatives.
Our father's emphasis on listening came from another direction -- from his interest in politics and justice. He knew the importance of seeing things counter-intuitively, of skeptical observation, and he taught us to follow his example by subjecting us to Socratic questioning in any given setting. Even his passing conversation made us want to listen; his remarks were so interesting. He was especially piquant on matters of money and charity. "Far more people know how to make big money than know how to spend it in useful ways," he once told us. "After they pile it up, they hardly know what to do with it, except spoil their descendants." Learning how to listen became a form of discipline that was rewarding in itself. It was not inhibiting; we still talked quite a bit. Our parents still listened quite a bit. But we four children never overwhelmed the conversation.
We learned to listen when guests were in the living room conversing with our parents. We learned to listen in school, which helped us avoid the restlessness of our schoolmates and enabled us to be more contemplative. We learned to listen to the evening radio network news, which sometimes had real relevance to our family -- most memorably with the Pearl Harbor attacks of December 7, 1941, since my brother Shaf was nearing draft age. And we learned to listen to the spirited debates at the local town meetings and other public gatherings, instead of fidgeting and distracting our patents from their focus on the matters at hand.
My inclination for listening was a boon during the tens of thousands of miles I covered while hitchhiking. Half a century ago, hitchhiking was far more common -- and safer -- than it is today, and plenty of cars and trucks stopped to pick me up as I thumbed my way around the country. After a few introductory words, their drivers probably expected me to doze off for the balance of the trip. Instead, I saw every driver as an expert on some subject in his own right -- whether he was a bricklayer, teacher, tree surgeon, factory worker, waiter, salesman, or a rug cleaner -- and after asking an opening question or two, I just sat back, listened closely, and got a dose of enlightenment about each driver's life's skill or passion. My only regret is that I didn't carry a diary to write down some of the things I heard on these trips; still, what I did learn added up to a free extracurricular education -- one that helped me interact with and understand a far broader selection of people than I would ordinarily have encountered as a high school, college, or law student.
Listening didn't always mean remaining silent. I learned early that good listening meant asking leading questions, and inserting verbal nudges that would tease out what you were really interested in learning. That early training helped me develop both my interviewing skills, which helped me throughout my career, and my patience in the long, often contentious, question-and-answer periods following my lectures and speeches. After sitting through one of these sessions, some reporters have written about what they call my "remarkable endurance." To me it has never been a matter of endurance, but rather the fruit of my family's tradition of listening in an effort to understand where other people were coming from.
As we grew older, we learned to listen and respond to the arguments of others who disagreed with us. Especially when we were young, Mother and Father made it clear that incessant talking obstructed the mind from receiving new information and improving itself. She encouraged us, in the fullest sense of the phrase, to keep an open mind. "The more you talk, the less you'll have to say," she would remind us. "The more you listen, the more sensible will be what you say."