Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice...

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“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice...” 

-Polonius

Hamlet Act 1; Scene 3

I've been thinking a lot about listening lately. We have all waited for our turn to speak without really absorbing a cohort's gist. It is easier to recognize this failing in ourselves when we notice (and perhaps get annoyed by) someone using the trick of nodding until they can interject. The difference is that, even if what the speaker says is egocentric or self-aggrandizing, to us it is external. One can listen to the remarks of someone, who has no knowledge of their topic and zero grasp of facts or reality, and still learn a great deal. My buddy Mike used to say that we can never know what the other person knows.

A famous line from the Tao te Ching states that, “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know.” The correlative Platonic quip is more digestible: “The sage speaks because they have something to say, the fool because they must say something.” 

This insight should not be viewed as an absolute. I like to think of this verse like the old standard, “A gentleman does not kiss and tell.” The ability to act/react correctly presupposes, in my mind, an inability to satisfactorily relate the nature of said action. Just ask a sports star to explain how they scored a tie-breaking goal or made a game-saving catch. 

So much of what we think of as skill occurs on the periphery of consciousness. This idea hearkens to Malcolm Gladwell's “10,000 hours” effect. Bill Gates and other Silicon Valley titans spent ten thousand hours tinkering with electronics before achieving mastery. Members of the Beatles had strummed and sung for ten thousand hours before they started hitting it big, at which point they had so wholly absorbed their craft that their abilities became independent of thought. The concept of muscle memory plays into this reasoning. 

A great piece on NPR the other day discussed the rampant heroin addictions of American troops in Vietnam. Intriguingly, the number of troops that became “re-addicted” upon returning home to the U.S. was just around 5%. This was because their habits essentially had been changed for them. The exurban environments these veterans returned to were so apart from the hell of the front, all of the familiar cues which perpetuated addiction were gone. 

I believe the corollary of this can be found in our friendships. If you are embedded in a social group where people are passionate, maybe about their vocation or some hyper-involving hobby, you may very well catch a similar bug. When those around us tend a garden, or have semi-yearly yard-sales to help clear clutter from their lives, or pick up an instrument for the first time, the likelihood is that we will mirror these positive paths.

Life is a series of changes. Struggling against change can court sorrow. Ending as we began, the Tao says that when we let go of what we are, we give way to what we might become. Let us ever strive to deal more kindly with others, but also let us not forget to deal munificently with ourselves as well. 

Also, it never hurts to reread Polonius' farewell advice to Laertes from the first act of Hamlet. “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice...”