I was a good baseball player during my teenage years. I didn’t play for my high school, but I played on a really competitive pony league team.
I had some natural talent, but under the supervision of my coach I developed into a good hitter. He worked with me closely to sharpen natural skills and I responded to him eagerly, because I loved to HIT. I loved the firecracker sound of the wood meeting the ball in the sweet spot. I especially loved it when that white disk rapidly shrank as it streaked past the outstretched glove of an infielder. I loved base running. I loved sprinting flat out, shaping my curve around third to accelerate toward home. I even loved sliding.
But there was one part of the game I didn’t particularly like: the sacrifice bunt. It was so much more fun to swing away! But my coach pointed out that even in baseball, where individual performance counts so highly, you have to set yourself aside in order to advance the team’s goal. Especially in close games when one run will make all the difference, if you’re following a lead-off hitter who made it to first, laying a bunt down the first base line will send the runner to second, even though you will probably be thrown out at first. You’re out, but the team stands to gain. As I grew to love the game more, I grew to see the beauty in the sacrifice bunt.
When it comes to listening, you have to realize that you’re part of a human team and the interests of the human team of which you’re a part aren’t always served by your hitting verbal home runs. Frequently, the interests of the team are better served by your efforts to advance the other on base, even if you walk back to the dugout.
In his book, The Lost Art of Listening, Michael Nichols, a professor at the College of William and Mary, said, “You can take the first step toward better listening by making a conscientious effort to set aside whatever is on your mind long enough to concentrate on what the other person has to say (p. 109).” This statement appears beneath a heading stating, “How to Let Go of your Own Needs and Listen.” (I supplied the bold print.)
“Set aside”? “Let go”? These two phrases pinpoint why effective listening is so rare and difficult for us. Most human beings are not very good at setting aside the self.
There’s a good reason for this. We spend a great deal of our growing up and education years learning how to “hit,” that is, how to “swing away,” exert ourselves, and express our minds. As far as that goes, that’s a very good thing, but if that’s the only thing we learn, we can come to think that my success depends upon my exerting myself all the time.
And yet, there have been a host of really great baseball players who never appeared in a World Series championship. They were excellent a exerting themselves, but their teams, for whatever reasons, never succeeded. Despite their individual greatness, they shared their teams’ mediocrity.
Successful human teams – families, congregations, communities, nations – are composed of people who know that their individual success means little if it comes at the cost of the community’s failure. Individuals in successful communities have learned not only how to “hit homers,” but they know when and how to set themselves aside, “lay down a sacrifice” and walk back to the dugout.
This is also the key to hearing the “voice” of God. We have to learn how to set aside the little power of the individual self in order to allow the greater power of a larger Self to flow. That’s where we’ll start in the next blog.