I was recently eating at a restaurant with friends when one of them pointed out to me that my eyes were riveted on the big picture window behind him and not on him. He felt I was not paying attention to him. I apologized for my wandering eyes and asked for his forgiveness. I was grateful to him for rebuking me. I realized that having a conversation with someone does not just mean being in the same room with someone and talking. For anything meaningful to happen, I have to be engaged emotionally with what my friend is saying. I have to be aware not just of words, but of nuances in speech, in gestures that accompany words, and in body language as well. These critical issues of active listening and being aware of one’s surroundings are crucial in the action thriller Taken 2.
Brian Mills, an ex CIA agent invites his ex-wife, Lenore, and daughter, Kim, to spend some time with him in Istanbul. Unbeknownst to him, he is being targeted by group of Albanian terrorists who want to revenge the death of family members who were killed by Brian in past operations.
Once in Istanbul, he and his wife are taken by the terrorists and Kim is his only lifeline to rescue. In a tension-filled scene, he gives Kim instructions that are critical to saving his life and the life of his wife. Kim must go to his hotel room, find his suitcase, remove the gun and several hand grenades from inside the suitcase, and then throw the hand grenades in designated areas free of human traffic. All this is done so that Brian can track his whereabouts by listening carefully to the sound of the explosives. The louder the sound, the closer is Kim and rescue. Kim listens to her father with great concentration because she knows his life depends on it.
As I watched this violent, farfetched but entertaining yarn, I thought of how critical it is to pay attention when listening to others. Brian is an experienced CIA agent. He knows how to listen and how to be aware to all sensory information. When he first is seized and blindfolded in a car, he can sense his location because of the various street noises that he hears and because he can measure distances by measuring his travel time from one destination to the next. He listens with his mind as well as with his ears. He is not just passively noting noises; he is paying attention and this is much different from merely hearing sounds.
In Jewish law, there is much debate about the difference between merely hearing something and paying attention to what you hear. The laws pertaining to the proper performance of prayers is where much of this discussion takes place. Is simply reciting prayers sufficient or must you be mentally engaged with the words as well? According to some authorities, if one simply hears the words but does not pay attention to their specific meaning, he has to repeat his prayers since words without thought are meaningless.
Merely mouthing words without intellectual or emotional investment, without eye contact, is valueless. If we want to communicate important feelings, if we want to learn subjects deeply, if we want to connect with other human beings in a serious way, we have to be good listeners. We cannot simply nod our heads when someone is talking to us. We have to actively listen and take in what the other person is saying. Without listening attentively to others, we miss what they say and fail to deepen our relationship with our friends, our neighbors, and loved ones. When we pay attention and not merely listen, we enrich our lives and the lives of others.