Speaking with Open Ears

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspirational tweets are written because he needs them. Of course there are others out there who need his encouragement, but he needs the words himself, so he writes them.

I felt like an outsider growing up so I started turning to books. I found something magical in the words of authors: a place of belonging, a sense of support. Of course in many ways I feel supported in real life: I have a great family and a great group of friends. But as a gay person in a small rural town, there is that pressing sense of exclusion. As an extension of the reading, writing has long helped me navigate difficult emotional or mental situations. I’m no Lin-Manuel (yet) so maybe no one reads these posts, but that’s fine. They’re more for me anyway.

But this leads me to think about a conundrum that perhaps many of us consider: where is the line between strong will and selfishness? I can have the attitude of “It’s just for me!” all I want, but when does that start to impede on having healthy relationships with others? As I mentioned in my last post, I love the part of my personality that says “I’m going to do this for me and that’s all that matters – if people hate it, screw ’em”. What worries me about this, though, is that I’ll turn people away every time their experience of life doesn’t match my own. I don’t want the can-do attitude I’ve cultivated out of a quest for belonging to lead into the habit of only expecting people to fit into my own unique mould. When an honest comment to someone is made to build them up but is perceived as an effort to tear them down, should I retreat into myself and avoid being so brutally honest? Honestly, yes and no. The answer to this conundrum, in my mind, lies in how we give and receive honest criticism.

I think when I say I’m proud of my tendency to be truthful to myself and my own needs, what I’m actually proud of is my (somewhat fleeting) ability to take in others’ concerns, listen to them, then adapt in a way that remains truthful to my own needs. I’ll unpack this further.

I think the reason I’ve felt like an outsider growing up here as a gay person is because I’ve been surrounded by people who A) feel they need to be silent when they don’t know enough about something/don’t want to step on toes, and/or B) don’t want to change their own outlook on life to accommodate others’ criticism. I never want to fall into either category, but especially not the latter.

I’ve had wonderful teachers and life coaches who have taught me how to listen and take in criticism. I’m still pretty sucky at it, really, but I can sense myself improving. People will always have criticism about how I behave, and there are three things I try to consider when that happens:

1. They are trying to improve my life by providing advice from their own, personal experiences.

2. They likely have something valuable to contribute that I’ve never thought of before.

3. Their experiences are their own, so they can only really help me to a certain extent. The help might be useful, completely useless, or anything in between. I have to be open to any of those options.

What I’m realizing is that many people don’t practice this openness. They feel that they’ve gone through enough shit that they’ve learned enough, and have built themselves up to be what they’re going to be for life. In my view, however, life doesn’t work that way. There are always going to be wild cards, and lessons to learn from them. People will always come in to your life that will shift how you view the world, and you have to be ready for that. What I try to do is practice listening, and absorbing the information that people give me from their own experiences in life. This allows me to learn and grow, rather than remain stoic and settle for an existence that’s average.

That said, it’s very difficult to accept criticism. To do so you have to remain vulnerable, and people hate being vulnerable. We would always much rather be right all the time. Practicing vulnerability is crucial, though. Allowing yourself to be open to criticism is actually the first step towards accepting your personal truth, because by accessing different worldviews or perspectives, we get closer to understanding what works best for us.

There’s another snag that prevents me from truly opening myself to criticism, and that is the criticizer’s assumption of absolute power. I find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to absorb advice that is given with anger or a total resolve offering no way out. If I feel cornered, then I am simply frustrated. Frustration can never lead to enlightenment for me. First I have to find a way around or through the frustration, then I can learn. Criticism is a heck of a lot easier to listen to if I feel like an equal, with the option of respectfully disagreeing. If the criticism comes from a sense of entitlement, I tune out.

So these are the things I’m currently practicing:

1. Staying true to my innate strong will while also being open to advice.

2. Taking in helpful advice with open arms. Giving a “Thank you!” even if I disagree with some of what they said. The point isn’t to argue further when someone gives you advice they view as helpful: the point is to take the advice.

3. Give criticism to others in a respectful way. When I want to point out something that could help another person move through their life, I have to understand that their experiences are vastly different from mine, so I should speak to them with my ears open more often than my mouth.

Even if I’m younger than you, or in a position that’s socially deemed “subordinate”, I still have valuable wisdom. Being older or more “mature” doesn’t necessarily make you wiser. Openness and vulnerability make you wiser, especially when you have the intention to love.

Lin-Manuel Miranda writes encouraging tweets for others that are really words of advice he wants to hear for himself. The world would be a lot more positive if we all gave others the love and respect we wish to receive. This is done, first and foremost, by listening.

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