All my life, I’ve been quite the chat artist. Frequent corner-standing due to non-stop kindergarten eloquence led to report card notes (“Good student, talks too much”), followed by trips to the principal’s office after using the high school newspaper to broadcast my blunt opinions. I’m no stranger to conflict as a result of my penchant to speak out. In fairness to myself, at the age of 5, I became the proud owner of a Chatty Cathy doll, and so my fantasies have always run more to emulating Chatty Cathy’s verbal talents than Barbie’s 20″ waist.
I’m the subject of frequent eye-rolls as the first to offer my take on any discussion topic or share a relevant experience. I can’t help myself…or maybe it’s that I don’t want to. In any case, my mom’s wise words from childhood still ring true: “Your mouth will get you into trouble.”
Mom, unfortunately, has been right more times than I can count, and you’d think I’d learn to put a plug in it. At last, a combination of middle-age, the practice of centering prayer, and the intense pursuit of learning to listen like a pastor has taught me the need to keep my mouth shut on most critical occasions. I’ve seen the fruits of listening and being present, instead of trying to fix others with what I think they need. Because in truth, they only need, and want, me to listen.
In divinity school, my over-anxious verbal expressiveness often made me a living example of how personal humility serves as the cornerstone for effective pastoral ministry. Humble yourself, shut up, and you might learn something. You might also discern what God is trying to tell you. Truth be told (and I’m compelled to tell it), I’ve been fairly proud of myself for learning humility and shut-up-ness as well as I could expect to, given my Über-Talker genetic makeup and lifelong expertise (my dad received the same “Good student, talks too much” notes in school…apples & trees…).
But too often in my experience, cultivating the difficult habit of humility translates into harsh cautions to tone down my Type A personality traits. Don’t run over your future parishioners, professors advise. Who do you think you are, to impose your sense of organization to this task? Who made you Boss? I heard that a lot during my CPE experience: Clinical Pastoral Education, as a chaplain at Nashville’s VA Hospital. CPE revealed my constant daily entrenchment in Type A behaviors, which was a good thing, but as a result–being the excellent Type A that I am–I took it too far. Now, whenever those Type A tendencies threaten, I respond like Pavlov’s Dog to eliminate them, without considering how they might actually benefit a situation. I’ve become a nervous observer, leery of acting in a way that betrays Type A arrogance or inflicts pain on someone I’m supposed to help.
That is, until last Monday, when I met with my new spiritual director, who pulled the rug out from under my revised Subdued Self with shocking fervor and unanticipated delight. When I explained to her that I’m a “Recovering Type A,” she stopped me, mid-stream. “God made you a Type A,” she said calmly. “There’s a reason for that, and while we never want to dominate others, those Type A gifts are needed in ministry. In your ministry. If you fail to be who God created you to be, then you’re not being authentic. Which is what you told me you set out to do in the first place: to answer God’s call, and be authentic to the Gospel.”
Ouch. You really can’t bullshit a spiritual director, or at least not this one. She hears everything I say. She listens. And she holds me accountable, but with compassion and understanding. My spiritual director is a living example of how Type A traits can coexist peacefully with humility: it’s possible to be organized, efficient and task-oriented, as long as you leave some space for unexpected God moments, and remain open to the ideas of others. Because I see in my spiritual director my own potential to live as a Humble Type A, I listen to her. Attentively.
And this month’s homework, she told me, is to Listen. Listen for how God speaks to me, every day. Listen to God’s silent speech, so that I might discern God’s will. So that I then might be equipped to help God’s people. Listen, and know that when I listen to others, I’m giving them an important message: I affirm you. I hear you. You matter. We are both God’s beloved children. “You’re looking for tangible results, to cross off something from your To-Do list,” my Spiritual Director said. “But listening is productivity, in spiritual life. Turn away from what the world defines as productivity, and embrace God’s silent speech.”
Listening isn’t new under the sun, especially after all the “Shut-Up” talk of divinity school and CPE. But by framing my assignment to listen in a beautiful way that doesn’t negate my Type A potential, for once, my spiritual director reinvigorated my capacity to learn, and more importantly, to make use of the gifts and talents God has given to me. Listening doesn’t mean I have to be something that I’m not.
“Be still then, and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46:10. Duh. It’s right there, isn’t it?
I wonder if that psalmist received notes: “Good poet, talks too much.”
Listening intently until next time,