Epictetus, a Greek philosopher once said ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’.
In practice of course, for many of us that is easier said than done and we need to train ourselves in the art of listening carefully to what others are saying. There is nowhere that this is more important than in our relationships, where we need to cultivate the habit of listening to what our partner is really saying, often beyond the words themselves.
This is particularly relevant where a couple are moving into the stage of life where issues of mortality are beginning to be opened up – both for the partner and for the one they love. I think for instance of a couple who I heard about recently outside of work, who seem to be bickering about her vinyl record collection. She is now in her 80’s and he is much the same age. Both are fit, having had one or two scares in the past, but both of them must be aware that death is probably not far away for one if not both of them. I don’t know whether they talk about that. What I do know is that they tend to argue quite a bit about the size of her record collection. Time and again he will say that she needs to reduce it, whilst she will be equally insistent that she will do it in her own good time and that actually she doesn’t want to reduce it even if it is very large already. In fact, far from cutting it down she regularly searches either on the Internet or in second hand shops for more vinyl to add to her collection.
But in hearing about them it has struck me that the records are only the symptom of the much bigger question of their mortality. On one understanding the husband dreads the thought of being responsible for clearing them up when she is gone and is becoming more anxious about the size of the task. Whilst she on the other hand is hanging on to the collection as living proof that she is continuing to live her life to the full, and in a way is denying her own anxieties about her mortality.
Both positions are understandable but the problem is that neither of them seems to be talking to the other about their fears and concerns. Rather they are entrenched in a power struggle, bickering constantly about the disposal, or not, of the record collection. As a therapist I would love to be able to work with them to encourage the ‘real’ conversations that need to happen.
Clearer communication about the deeper feelings would help of course, but also a deeper level of listening would also break this deadlock. Using both those ears to listen, to the words with one ear, but to listen to what might be the feelings behind them with the other. Developing curiosity and asking the question… this seems to be really important to you – tell me more about it….
For this couple, one would hope that they could have a greater understanding of each other and a more peaceful and fulfilling time as they approach the final years of their lives together.
One of the founders of Transpersonal Psychology said
‘ For any culture which is primarily concerned with meaning, the study of death – the only certainty that life holds for us – must be central, for an understanding of death is the key to liberation in life’ (Stanislav Grof).
We could also add that it is the key to satisfying, life-enhancing relationships as well.