The large ad on the side of the city bus read: He may not always hear what you are saying, but he is always listening. There, beneath these words, is the head and features of a young boy. What does this mean? Is it not a contradiction to say someone is not always hearing, but is always listening? Not necessarily. Those of us who live with others—and they need not always be young boys—know what it means to live with someone who doesn’t always hear us, but who nonetheless is always listening. The issue is not one of the physical organism comprising the ear, but rather one of the relationship between people.
For we know of some member of a household who has developed the ability not to hear what another person living there—usually a particular person—is saying, especially if the remark is directed his or her way. On the other hand, should someone else living there say something to that same person, he or she hears it, even it is not spoken any louder than the comment from the first person. There seems to be an issue of selective hearing here, involving, not the ear, but a volitional component. That is, it indicates someone has decided not to hear what a particular person has just said to him or her. The hearing mechanism is fine. But a decision has been made not to hear what a certain person says, as when a young boy who is reading the Sports Page is asked by his older sister to take out the garbage. For some strange reason he doesn’t seem to hear the remark.
On the other hand, that same boy, who may be sitting in the TV room, shows a surprising alertness to what his father and mother are talking about, as, for instance, gifts to purchase for him at Christmas time. The parents may be speaking softly, and at some distance away from the boy, who is absorbed in reading about his favorite ball club. Yet he shows a remarkable skill at hearing what his parents are conversing about in the living room, at a considerable distance away from him. Even household pets, such as the dog, exhibit a similar agility at perking up their ears when remarks are made about getting the leash to take him or her out for a walk.
We are prone to hear what we find pleasing and pleasurable. And this penchant can occur without too much deliberate planning on our part, whereas an unwelcome remark can fail to engage one already involved in something else. The married couple at the breakfast table, drinking coffee while reading their favorite portion of the daily paper, can be speaking to one another without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the other.
There is a saying to the effect that the messenger who brings bad news often suffers the fate that the bad news entails, as in the case of the messenger conveying the unwelcome news that King Saul had been killed(2 Sam 1), and then undergo death himself at the hands of David. The messenger suffered the fate of the unwelcome news. None of us likes to hear what displeases us. We devise ways and means of avoiding an unwelcome message. But, at times, that is the very news we need to hear for our own well-being. The false prophets of the old Testament were adept at fashioning messages for the rulers of the land that the latter wanted to hear. The true prophets of that era always spoke the truth, but it was often not wanted or listened to. We hear what we want to hear, while often listening to conversation it were better we had not heard. Unfortunately, we are usually better at listening than hearing.