Falstaff’s Disease

January 16, 2000


Falstaff’s Disease

There is a moment in one of Shakespeare’s plays when that marvelously funny fat man, Sir John Falstaff, has a conversation with the Chief Justice of England. Sir John is not very comfortable with a representative of law and order because his rowdy, roistering lifestyle will not bear close scrutiny, so he pretends not to hear some of the Chief Justice’s questions. When he is rebuked for that, he makes a facetious remark that turns out to fit a lot of us: “It is the disease of not listening….that I am troubled withal.”
Falstaff’s problem was not physical but mental. He heard only what it pleased him to hear, what we call “selective hearing.” Or perhaps “selective listening” would be more accurate, because we we all hear sounds when we are not really listening at all. Listening — reallly listening — means more than awareness of noise. It involves a conscious act of will as one engages the mind and enters into unspoken dialogue with the speaker — the kind of hearing Jesus had in mind when he said, “If you have ears, use them!” He was frustrated, as every passionate teacher often is, by people whose ears register noise which their minds never translate.
Perhaps deliberately, because (like Falstaff) if they really listened they would have to respond, and response might be inconvenient. This is a common disease among children, either because they are innocently lost in daydreams or because they’ve learned how useful it can be to listen selectively. If you’ve been a parent, you know how it works. You can whisper from the far end of the house, “Would you like to use the car tonight?” and even with the stereo booming they never fail to hear, but you may shout repeatedly in a house that’s deathly still that the lawn needs mowing….and nobody is listening.
But those of us who are parents also know that the children might in truth say the same about us. Parents are not always good listeners. I’m sure there must have been times when one of my kids wanted to do what still another Shakespeare character does when he boxes the ears of a man playing deaf and says: “….. this cuff was but to knock at your ear, and beseech listening.” How exasperated we get sometimes, knowing people aren’t paying attention. And how lonely, sometimes. Not just to hear the perfunctory grunt that says, “Yes, there’s a live body in the room,” but a response that says, “I’m really paying attention and trying to understand.”
I think listening like that is implied in the Simon and Garfundel hit that led the Top Ten for so long. The lyrics of a song never read very well because they were planned for a different medium, but here are some of the promises which — along with a haunting melody — made that song so popular:
“When times get rough, and friends just can’t be found,
Like a bridge over troubled waters I will lay me down.
When you’re down and out, when you’re on the street,
When evening falls so hard, I will comfort you.
I’ll take your part when darkness comes
And pain is all around,
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.”
It could be a wedding song about what a man may be to his wife, she to him; or a promise from a parent to a child; or an essay on friendship; or a hymn describing the way Jesus related to other people. “Like a bridge over troubled water “— there are not many lovelier definitions in this world of what one person may be to another. It has the flavor of something theologian Paul Tillich said in one of his published sermons: “Everyone is potentially a tool of healing for someone else.” It’s a little frightening to hear that, I suppose, but exciting, too — to realize we have that kind of power — and sad to think how seldom we use it. One of the most common reasons for that failure can be summed up in the phrase “deliberate deafness,” the disease of not listening.
You know the old adage: None so deaf as those that will not hear. To the organically deaf, you can at least write a note and see comprehension dawn. But to the perfectly functioning physical ear of the person who will not listen, you simply bounce words off a thick blank wall. I remind you again how often Jesus must have felt the pain of that, great teacher that he was, pleading: “They that have ears to hear, let them hear!” “They that have ears” — in a literal sense, who didn’t in that audience? All of them sported those odd little structures on each side of their heads, but just as Gary reminded us last week that when Jesus talked about seeing he wasn’t thinking about corneas and retinas, so here he isn’t talking about eardrums and cochlear nerves. He meant what Shakespeare’s Antony meant 15 centuries later when he said, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” The metaphor means Listen to me! I remember a line from an old movie called Midnight Cowboy to which many in the movie audience related: “Everybody’s talking at me, no one hears a word I’m saying.”
There are lots of teenagers who have reason to feel that way, kids whose parents are too distracted to pay much attention to what their children say — and especially when both words and body language demand attention in order to know what’s really being said. But the other sad side of that story is that more and more kids are listening less and less to their parents. Sociologists can give you several reasons for that, but one that particularly bothers me is the number of television shows in which parents are portrayed as hopeless dodoes too bumbling and out of touch to be worth hearing. Courtesy and respect do not come naturally, like weight gain and body height. They have to be taught. When they are not, when disrespect is taught instead, a generation grows up that’s rude to parents at home, to teachers in school, and to customers in the business you own.
It’s even sadder, but not at all uncommon, when husbands and wives no longer show enough respect to listen to one another. All sorts of problems are blamed for broken homes, but many of them are probably just substitutes for the loneliness that comes when nobody is getting through to anybody. I stood in line one night to se a movie while Billie went on into the lobby because it was cold outside. I had nothing else to do so I became aware of the pair right in front of me. The man was a grump who did nothing while we were in that line except stare stolidly off across the street. I don’t know where he wished he could be, but it was obviously not there. I could tell it was different for his wife, who seemed quite happy to be out of the house and with an adult, and she was trying with all her might to interest her husband in conversation. He didn’t respond, except in grunts. He didn’t look at her, or smile when she smiled, or see anything or feel anything. I thought, “Lady, I’ll bet you’d even appreciate a good fight right now; at least he’d know you were alive. Maybe if you’d call him an ugly name he’d be shocked into noticing you.” There was troubled water between those two, and what above all else they needed was a bridge of real listening.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we start dating and courting and getting engaged because we find someone we love to talk to, someone we enjoying hearing talk, and then we get married and somebody — or both somebodies — just gradually stop listening. Because we really need someone to talk to, sometimes, like a physical craving. I remember an old Italian in one of Robert Browning’s poems [The Ring and the Book ] who is considering leaving Rome and moving out into the country where, he says, the air is good, firewood is cheap, and the wine is pure. But there would be another need, he knew that, and he says it this way: “I will have two or three old friends will grope/ Their way along the mere half-mile of road, / With staff and lantern on a moonless night / When one needs talk!”
Old friends who will come “when one needs talk” — how desperately we all need that at times. Isn’t that why, if we are good friends, we sometimes call each on the telephone and say, “Hey, come over, and let’s just sit and talk”? So the big question is: Why, if it’s so important, do we forget how to listen? Remember those words from Scripture that ___________ read this morning, and how Martha was upset because her sister Mary chose to visit with Jesus instead of helping her with household chores? If I put that text in modern language it would run something like this: “For pete’s sake, Martha, stop running around and sit down and listen! Forget the dust and the dishes, stop worrying over whether the wine is cool; we have things to talk about!” There are some good things to say about efficiency, but when it’s time to listen….when the signal comes through loud and clear that somebody really wants to talk, and wants to be heard, then you drop the broom and take the phone off the hook and you listen. Because if you don’t, you never can be sure there’ll be another chance. Unless you call that man in Los Angeles who advertises that he is available as a professional listener. He offers no advice, promises no solutions to problems, boasts no special university training. He simply charges by the hour to sit and listen to whatever his client wants to get off his or her chest. I understand he makes a decent living.
Now I don’t mean, of course, that we have to be intense all the time. A lot of conversation is desultory. As one man put it, it’s “chattering with other chattering people about other people’s chatter.” If you hear that with half an ear, it won’t matter. But you watch for the moment when someone is trying to get beyond saying, “Thank you,” and “Yes, it looks like rain,” and is trying to say, “If I tell you how I feel, will you laugh? Will you hear only half of it before you start preaching to me? Will you take it seriously and then tell me what you really and truly think about it?”
There’s a little book called Creative Broodings which has in it an actual letter written to his parents by a boy who had run away from home. And yes, it has the predictable touch of self-pity, but if you forgive that and listen, the letter says something worth hearing. “Do you remember, Mom and Dad, when I was about six or seven and I used to want you to just listen to me? I remember all the nice things you gave me for Christmas and for my birthday, and I was really happy with the things — about a week at the time I got them, but the rest of the time during the year I really didn’t want presents. I just wanted all the time for you to listen to me like I was somebody who felt things too, because I remember even when I was young I felt things. But you said you were busy.
“Mom, you’re a wonderful cook, and you had everything so clean and you were so tired so much from doing all those things that made you busy. But you know something? I would have liked crackers and peanut butter just as well if you had only sat down with me a while during the day and said to me: ‘Tell me all about it so I can maybe help you understand.’ I think that all the kids who are doing so many things that grownups are tearing out their hair worrying about are really looking for somebody that will have time to listen a few minutes and who really and truly will treat them as they would a grownup who might be useful to them, you know — polite to them. If you two had ever said to me, ‘Pardon me,’ when you interrupted me, I’d have dropped dead. If anybody asks you where I am, tell them I’ve gone looking for somebody with time because I’ve got a lot of things I want to talk about. Love to all. Your son.”
Well, there are always two sides: parents dying to listen, and kids who won’t talk. But the letter speaks truth about the other side: parents so busy working to give their kids all the advantages that they have no time to lend an ear as proof that the children are so deeply loved that even what they have to say is important. If you aren’t a parent yet, and the letter I read doesn’t strike a responsive chord at all, it might be better to have no children. But even then there’d always be other people needing someone to listen, wouldn’t there, so there’s no way around it: If you haven’t learned to be a good listener, you are constantly cheating someone.
For every person who is a natural listener, or has mastered the art, there are ten talkers so full of themselves that you wait in vain to say a word of your own, only to find, after waiting, that what you said didn’t register at all, and served only to let the talker catch his breath before continuing the monologue. It is, in funny old Falstaff’s most unconsciously profound words, “the disease of not listening that we are troubled withal.” So no matter who you are, or what you do, never make the excuse that you have no ministry, nothing to give. You have ears.

Slow us down from our hurry, gracious Lord, and help us find time
to listen. Most of what we have to do can be rescheduled, but the
times for listening may pass away forever. Help us not to miss them.