03 June, 2011

'Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk'.

My wife’s friend Betty is 87 years young. She has just moved into a new flat, set herself up with a new PC, organised broadband and, with a bit of advice, successfully set up her own Blogspot  (http://bettykidd.blogspot.com/). She fills her time with the many friends and family who visit her and who she visits, watching cricket (Nottinghamshire Cricket Club and Test Matches) at her beloved Trent Bridge, watching Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, singing in the local choir and doing administrative work for them, reading, watching TV, writing e-mails and a myriad of other things that it quite exhausts me to even think  about! She’s a bit slower these days and had to give up driving a few years ago but is still interested in everything and everyone. A few months ago she had cataracts removed  and the doctor performing the operation asked her what benefits from the operation she hoped to have. Her answer – she wanted to be able to read the scoreboard at Trent Bridge!
Betty in listening mode!

Betty’s first and new blogspot is called 'Blessings in Disguise'. I think is a quote from a favourite book which she believes sums up her situation well. She constantly reminds us (and herself) how lucky and grateful she is to be able to do the things that she does. But it is more than that. It is a social history giving the personal details that one doesn’t find in the history books.  Imagine children today being asked, when they visit a library, to show their hands so they can be checked for cleanliness before handling the books (see blog. 'To long lost friends....')!  It is also a timely reminder in this age of youth and popular culture to have the views of someone of a different generation and their ‘take’ on current issues.  An hour or two with Betty makes us feel a million times better. She has that ability.

I have met only three or four  people with Betty’s  qualities during in my life – and each holds a very special place – Betty, my mother in law Winnie Green, an elderly friend of my mother and father  in law Pete McAusland  and my great uncle John Derbyshire.  And although each was from a very different generation, sometimes from a very different background from my own and with very different views and outlooks, they were able to cross the age and class divide. My Great Uncle John was an old man when I was a teenager but his interest was such that he could still communicate with me and I loved it. 'Come on Tony', he once said to me in the early sixties, 'tell me about these Rolling Stones, what's so special about them?' Or, as we watched  the early European  football on his little black and white TV I can remember him saying - 'This is the football of the future and if England don't change they'll be beaten'. How right he was and I felt pleased that an 'old man', who, as a youngster himself had 'run away from home' to fight - under age - in the Great War had the time for me, a spotty teenager, and wanted to know what I thought. When my own son was born he was called John after his Great Great Uncle.  And in turn, I was able to perhaps  understand John's  world and learn from his experience, background and maturity and importantly, at the same time, feel I had something valuable and valued to say  - because he, like Betty, listened, asked questions, commented and above all was interested in my world.  I often wonder if one of the reasons for the growth of blogsites and social, networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter  is explained by humanity’s need to communicate and to feel valued by others. Perhaps, in the busy, instantaneous and fast moving world of today,  we have become used to shallow relationships and being managed and told by government, big business, the media  and the loud and the noisy that we have lost the ability and opportunity to  listen, discuss, reflect upon and value what we and others think.   
Out singing carols with the choir on
a bitterly cold day (Betty on the left)

Betty  is one of those very rare people who has that capacity to listen to others and to talk to people not at them.  There is a difference. For example, the other day my wife and I had a lovely day out in Derbyshire. We were walking in Mill Dale. As we walked two young women passed us – one was talking at high speed, very loudly about her life. Even in the few seconds it took for us to pass, her voice was irritating, loud and aggressive.  Her poor companion must have had very sore ears. An hour later we turned back and met the same couple again – the same woman was still grinding on – totally oblivious to others. I wondered if her companion had managed to say anything during the previous hour. Was anything of interest in what was being said? Did she want  to hear the views of her companion or was she so caught up in her own world that she was only interested in herself? She was talking at her friend not to her.  Talking to someone implies a two way communication – something which I increasingly see as at a premium in today’s world! As I heard her strident voice disappearing in the distance I was reminded of Mark Twain’s comment: 'Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.'

Westminster is full of politicians who howl each other down rather than debate, political parties and other organisations tell us that they 'listen' to what their constituents are saying – no they don’t they tend to tell people what they should think. If our own government had listened in the past few years there are many things that it might not have done! The media – be it the Sun, the Mail, SKY or whatever force feeds its own particular point of view and confirms prejudice but it rarely listens. Big business is a prime culprit – by advertising and promotion it creates markets and moulds viewpoints but it rarely listens. If the banks were listening at all to the views of populations around the world they would have responded very differently to the way they have in the past couple of years!

Listening to people is very hard - much harder than simply talking. Anyone can talk but listening requires skill and maturity. It is not a passive activity. It requires at least three or four essential ingredients. You have to actively pay attention and show interest and not doze off! You have to accept that the other person might say things that you disagree with. You have to understand that the other person’s view may just be as valid as your own. And of course, if this is true, you have, most importantly, to actually value the person who is expressing their opinion or view of telling their story  as 'worthwhile'. The final outcome of all this is that by listening one learns and when you learn you  change, you take on board new things. I often used to say to children in my class who could not stop talking that it was unlikely they would learn anything since all they heard was their own voice relating what they already knew. If they wanted to learn something new then they had to stop and listen to someone else!
Crossing the generations - octogenarian and eight year old!

Betty has all these qualities in abundance and in turn this ensures a number of things. People want to talk to her and she wants to listen. She learns from others and others learn from her.  American cartoonist Doug Larson once said 'Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk'. That, I think, sums Betty up perfectly. She is 87 years young, wise and has the magical quality of being able to communicate with people many years younger – she crosses generations. When I talk to her I feel that my views are valued (I’m sure she must disagree with many of them – but I know they are still valued) – and I suspect that is why she has retained a large number of friends who visit and who keep in contact. And, although, understandably, Betty  has many treasured memories and beliefs built up over her long life she is also 'of the present' – she is happy to learn of and use  new technology, be up to date with the latest news, be anxious to know the latest cricket of football scores  and the like – and that is why we enjoy visiting her and look forward to reading her next blog!

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