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Two Ears and One Mouth*

By the Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter, Co-Director for Safe Havens

The content of this blog post includes references to sexual and domestic violence and elder abuse. These topics can be spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually challenging. We hope that you will take care of yourself and engage at the level that is best for you as we consider these important topics that call for bravery, compassion, and thoughtfulness.

Many survivors of domestic and sexual violence and elder abuse talk about how freeing it is to be able to tell another human being about the abuse. Indeed, Judith Herman’s research suggests that this is a critically important component of justice and healing for survivors of abuse: just to be heard, acknowledged, and treated with compassion. [1] Which is why we at Safe Havens are such proponents of simple listening: listening with open hearts, open eyes, and open minds. Listening, as the Benedictine tradition enjoins, “with the ear of the heart.”

Listening as a spiritual discipline goes back generations in many faith and cultural traditions, and often begins with human beings being told to “give ear to,” “hear,” “hearken,” or listen to G-d, to Creation, and to one another.

In today’s world, where many of us are surrounded daily by noise, static, false narratives, misinformation, interruptions, lies, and trivialities, listening is more important than ever. Sikh activist Valerie Kaur comments: “The most critical part of listening is asking ‘what is at stake for the other person?’ I try to understand what matters to them, not what I think matters.”[2]

Kay Lindahl, founder of The Listening Center, adds: “Perhaps one of the most precious and powerful gifts we can give another person is to really listen to them, to listen with quiet, fascinated attention, with our whole being, fully present. This sounds simple, but if we are honest with ourselves, we do not often listen to each other so completely.”[3] Lindahl continues:

“Listening is a creative force. Something quite wonderful occurs when we are listened to fully. We expand, ideas come to life and grow, we remember who we are. Some speak of this force as a creative fountain within us that springs forth; others call it the inner spirit, intelligence, true self. Whatever this force is called, it shrivels up when we are not listened to and it thrives when we are.”

Image Source: "Listening as Spiritual Practice" by Alexandra Bell in Friends Journal, 2020.

I have come to believe that NOT being listened to is a facet of the abuse that many people experience, and the result is the “shriveling up” (of soul, spirit, and self) that so many survivors describe. Many survivors of intimate partner violence and elder abuse feel alone, isolated, discounted, decentered, and dehumanized because within their supposedly “intimate” relationship they are profoundly not heard.

Not being listened to may be experienced similarly by survivors of sexual assault, and they may also experience this lack of listening in a different way, as their vehement “NO” is ignored, their urgent pleas for help go unheard, and they are threatened into silence.

It is painfully difficult for survivors of violence and abuse to speak up and ask for help. If, when they do reach out, their family, friends, faith community, and colleagues fail to listen, it’s easy to imagine that this may be experienced by the survivor as a continuation of the silencing and dehumanization of the abuse itself.

Safe Havens’ trainings about how people of faith can support those who have experienced abuse highlight this important first step: “listen, listen, listen.” It is by listening with “the ears of our hearts” and with every fiber of our being that “the inner spirit, intelligence, and true self” of those who have been affected by abuse may begin to move toward restoration.

Whenever we are listening to a survivor of abuse, we need to remember that the safety of this survivor ALWAYS comes first. This means that we hold whatever we have heard in strict confidence. It means that we refer survivors to domestic and sexual violence advocates and encourage them to work with the advocate to create a safety plan. It means that we are there to support the survivor’s plans and decisions, not to make their plans and decisions for them. It means that we never blame or judge. And as for “quick fixes,” remember that if there were a quick fix, the survivor would already have thought of it long ago.

It may be a while before the person experiencing abuse is ready to act, and during that time, being present and listening “with the ears of your heart” are enough.

Whether or not anyone has reached out to you for help, there is so much you can do now to support survivors and to end abuse. Safe Havens has a tip sheet with creative ideas about actions you can take in your congregation.


* “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This saying is attributed to Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who was enslaved in Rome during much of his early life.

[1] Judith Lewis Herman, Justice from a Victim’s Perspective, in Violence Against Women, Vol. 11, No. 5, 571-602, May 2005.

[2] Valerie Kaur, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (New York: One World, 2020).

[3] Kay Lindahl, quoted in “The Gift of Deep Listening,” a Daily Meditation from Fr. Richard Rohr at The Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, NM, July 27, 2022.

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