Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Bonhoeffer and Finding Balance

I’m working through my resolution books (I’ve finished three already) and currently reading “Life Together.”  I started it a couple months ago and feel like I’m barely making progress.  I’ve realized that part of what I love about writers like Barbara Brown Taylor and Rachel Held Evans and Richard Beck is that they leave some room in their writing for discussion.  The voice in which they write is one of explaining an understanding at which they have arrived and inviting the reader to consider it carefully.  Reading their work feels like an invitation to an on-going conversation.  My experience with Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus far is pretty much the opposite of that. 

I know he is revered by many, so this is probably somewhat sacrilegious, but it is exhausting trying to keep my mind in this book while I’m reading it.  Maybe it is the tone in translation or how different much of what he describes is from my own life, but reading it feels similar to attending a lecture where the person speaking begins by saying that questions are not permitted, as there is nothing he will say that is open for discussion.  For the first two sections, I had to force myself to ignore what felt like being dictated to and continue reading.

Thankfully, now that I’ve made it to the third section, I think I’m getting used to it. I even found myself drawn in to the part where he explains the importance of silence.  The larger context of the passage is about silence in the presence and contemplation of scripture, but I also found there some inspiration for my overall pursuit of listening to gain understanding.
“Silence does not mean being incapable of speech, just as speech does not mean idle talk…. There is a wonderful power in being silent – the power of clarification, purification, and focus on what is essential… Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid.  But what is essential and helpful can be said in a few words.”  - Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together

The silence – the listening for the purpose of understanding, the quieting my mind – it’s really hard for me.  I kind of suck at it, actually. I mean, I just wrote three-and-a-half paragraphs and I'm still not to the point of this post. Was all of that really essential?

When I’m alone, I feel like my thoughts go a million miles a minute.  I’m always writing in my head.  Or thinking of how I should explain myself.  Or trying to analyze situations and figure out how I feel about something.  When I’m having a conversation, I find myself talking until I feel I make sense, often explaining the subject in several different ways until I feel like I get my point across.  Sure, sometimes this is all fine, but mostly that is the opposite of focusing on what is essential or listening to understand.

I struggle to find the right balance.

To use the right words to speak from my heart.

To listen with the intent of gaining understanding.

To write with purpose and weave with words.

And most difficult for me right now: To discern when is the appropriate time and what are the appropriate words for each.  I believe what I should be aiming for with my speaking, my listening, and my writing can be summarized from the Bonhoeffer excerpt above – To appreciate the power of silence and to say the essential in few words while leaving the unnecessary unsaid.

What a simple and overwhelming aspiration. 

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