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We are in trouble. And not just because of COVID-19.

Somehow, in some way—as time passed and economies grew and we allowed ourselves to be distracted by our own fast-lane life of personal details and goals and agendas—we stopped paying attention. Since we were not paying attention, and everything proceeded as usual, we didn’t need to think as hard. And in our not thinking, we became complacent and comfortable, which allowed something dangerous to grow: the certainty that we are right. That our personal reality is the true reality. The one reality. We stopped listening to, and holding space for, others’ realities.

At the time of this writing, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, everyone the world over knows things are broken.

We look around and see evidence of disconnect, of failure, of fracture, of division; all of these things are a symptom of the brokenness of the planet, and rifts in the foundation of society. But these things are also a warning: slow down, proceed carefully and deliberately.

We did not get here by accident. The time has come to pay attention again, thoughtfully, to figure out how to fix things.

We need to be careful how we go about this. As we finally come to terms with the scope of this breakdown, we become frightened and reactive. And our fear makes us dig in deeper, cling to the familiar; to a vision of what once was. A vision of what we would like things to be.

Fear does not create an atmosphere of growth.

Instead it paralyzes us and prevents us from acting. Fear and its accompanying paralysis are what will doom the planet, if we can’t break through and rise above them.

As we drift through the last easy days of summer, the monster named Fall 2020 is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. What is undoubtedly coming will be difficult: more social isolation in the form of quarantine. Hurricane season. The most contentious election we have likely yet seen.

We are not ready.

Right now, at this moment, we don’t have the tools to handle the imminent level of ugliness. We’ve lost them.

The most essential tool we’ve lost is a skill: listening. To truly listen to others rather than automatically agree, or tune out, or worse—impulsively react because we don’t like what we are hearing, if it doesn’t fit with our reality or perspective.

When you strip away all of our artifice, ego, and emotion, our basic human need is simple: we all want to be heard.

And when we don’t listen to each other, we don’t feel heard.

And when we don’t feel heard, we yell louder.

More stridently. With more certainty. And with progressively more vitriol. And sometimes, if we don’t feel heard for long enough, the frustration turns into viciousness. Which of course damages our relationships even more.

When we do feel heard, the nervous system calms down, the brain regains function and access to logical thought, and we become capable of acting again. Instead of reacting. The ability to compromise, negotiate, and see the big picture returns.

So as we slide from summer 2020 into fall, I ask, can you LISTEN?

Do you remember how?

Because the only way we are going to come together and solve problems is if everyone, everywhere feels heard. If people feel their concerns are being heard and understood, they are more willing to negotiate. To work together to find a solution.

If people don’t feel heard, they dig in. Become more stubborn. Refuse to contribute meaningfully until they feel someone is finally hearing, and paying attention.

If one thing is certain, the future is coming, whether we like it or not.

And if we don’t fix this communication breakdown, we will have learned nothing during this pandemic, and will find ourselves exactly where we were before it started.

Which means all of this suffering and sacrifice will have been for nothing. And, frighteningly, this creates the possibility that some kind of reset like this could happen again. Because we didn’t learn the lesson entrusted to us.

We have no choice, really; we have to come together, to fix our global relationships. Now. To do this, we need to remember our skills and commit to listening to each other.

Listening so that we all feel heard.

It’s such a small thing, but it will make a HUGE difference: the difference between remaining stuck in the uncomfortable, fear-ridden status quo; or growing and expanding into lasting, positive change.

Heather Shaff

Heather is a book designer based in Boston who, when she’s not writing or taking care of the fam, can be found racing her bike, enjoying nature, or just daydreaming.

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