Take the Long Way Home (To Be a Better Listener)
“My dad is my hero. What he did for our family is remarkable.”
I wanted to know more, so I asked her just what made him such an awesome dad? She told me about his profession,
“He was incredibly hard working. He was the headmaster at a large prep school. His job was stressful, but he NEVER showed it. When he walked through the door each day, he modeled kindness and grace like I have never experienced since.”
With child-like curiosity, I wanted to learn more. So I kept probing, believing that I would one day have a family of my own,
“So how do you think he did that? How did he model such peace when his professional life was so hectic?”
She went on to tell me that her dad had a “man-cave” in their home – fully loaded with his favorite amenities, including a big screen TV, pool table and chess set.
“When he arrived home he immediately went into his man-cave for thirty minutes to play pool by himself. We didn’t hear a sound.”
“Every day?” I questioned.
“Yes, every day”, she responded.
If she didn’t have my attention until that moment, she genuinely had it after that. In the back of my mind, I started thinking,
“How was your dad such a kind, compassionate, and caring person if he immediately retreated to his man-cave every day after work (even though deep down inside I was kind of jealous ☺)? It didn’t seem like such a kind, compassionate, and caring thing to do, after all. Wouldn’t the kind and caring response be to greet his wife and children upon his arrival? “
My friend then shared that her dad would set a timer for thirty minutes. He wouldn’t come out of his man-cave until the timer went off. As soon as the timer sounded, he opened the basement door, embraced the family, and was “fully present” from that moment until they were sound asleep at night.
Many years have passed since that conversation and I hadn’t thought about it until about three weeks ago. Our workday had just ended and I was stuck in traffic. It had been an especially intense day. We met with a family who had lost a son unexpectedly. The family asked us if we would be willing to perform his funeral. Sitting with his parents that day was one of the most intense moments I have ever experienced in ministry.
As I was driving home, thinking about all that had happened during the day, I needed to make a snap decision – Should I take the standard way home, which is the quickest way by far or should I take the long way home, adding many minutes to an already long trip.
My drive, depending on traffic and how much jockeying for position I do on the highway, takes between 30-45 minutes. When I arrive home I am immediately enveloped by all four of our children. “Daddy’s home!” they all shout in choir-like unison. It’s a special moment and has become one of my favorite moments of the day. Nevertheless, because of the intense nature of so many of our workdays, there are moments when I’ve not always been as “fully present” with my wife and children as I want or need to be. To be completely honest, earlier in our marriage, I wasn’t always the best listener to my wife, either.
But several years ago, I finally admitted my shortcoming and have made the conscious decision to “work hard” at being a better listener, and have done so ever since. I started spending as much time as I could with other husbands and fathers who were good listeners to their families. I wanted to learn from them. I started intentionally asking better questions.
Each of those practices has been tremendously helpful. But another practice I learned to implement, especially on the really intense days, is to “take the long way home”. I intentionally drive the long-way-home to de-stress, debrief, and prepare my heart to listen well to those who often need my attention the most—my wife and children. That long way home for me means choosing to drive slowly along the winding back roads of the central Pennsylvania countryside instead of fast-paced highway driving. The back roads in central PA are an endless sea of nothingness (and by nothingness I mean nothing but rolling hills, corn stalks, and silos).
Everything on the outside is peaceful, serene, still. But everything on the inside is quite the opposite, restless, anxious, tense and tired. I’m often overwhelmed.
Author Adam McHugh, in his recently published book The Listening Life, has written a chapter entitled, “Listening To Creation”, in which he asserts that all of creation is preaching a sermon to us if we will only take the time to listen. He quotes the late naturalist, writer, preservationist and founder of the Sierra Club John Muir, who once asserted,
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”
One of the spiritual disciplines Adam McHugh has implemented is the discipline of a long walk – so nature can heal and cheer and give strength to his body and soul. He writes:
For the first ten minutes, of my walk I am allowing the fog to drift out of my soul, silencing my mind and heart and giving myself over to God’s gifts in my mind and heart and giving myself over to God’s gifts in my immediate surroundings. Then I begin to notice what I see and hear, no matter how big and loud or small and quiet. I’m not trying to insert meaning or concentrate on any one thing; I’m only noticing … Then, after I have perused the book of creation, taking it in on a large scale, I start to pay attention to anything that flashes or sings out at me, something specific that draws me in. If the first stage is taking in the symphony as a whole, now I start to focus in on particular instruments. Is it a lizard lounging on the path? Is it a particular birdcall? Is it the wind shaking the leaves? Is it the shape of a branch in a tree? Is it the chorus of nighttime voices? Whatever it is, study it. Listen to it. What do you see? What do you hear? What seem interesting or significant about it?
I also enjoy a long walk. But on those days when I can’t seem to find the time and space to be able to go on a long walk, I “take the long way home” to heal my restless soul. The long way home for me is a time to let the cares and worries of the world trickle off my shoulders. I take deep breaths. I admire beauty. I rest. By intentionally listening to creation’s sermon, the feelings of restlessness and weariness subside because I am reminded that I am not the center of the world—and that the world continues to go on with or without me. The birds will be fed. The corn will grow. The sun will rise and fall.
As I drive, I litter the countryside (not physically, but mentally) with the cares of the world that weigh so heavily upon my shoulders: the critical comment, the relational tension, and the unexpected outcome. All of it is hypothetically thrown out the window. My mind and heart is becoming “free” again.
I then open the door and am greeted by my wife and children. I am then able to be fully engaged and fully present to those who need my attention the most. I am able to listen well.
What spiritual discipline could you implement in your own life so that you can be a better listener and be more fully present with others?
*If you are interested in hearing Adam Mchugh speak about his book, The Listening Life, please mark your calendars for September 30th!