Have you ever encountered a fictional character that you hated in the beginning of the story, but when you eventually learn the character’s backstory, you find yourself unable to dislike them, or they even become your favorite character? As a child reading “Harry Potter,” I was initially disgusted by the character Severus Snape. (Spoiler alert for “Harry Potter” in the following paragraph.)
In the story, Snape is always very harsh on Harry and his friends, and often picks on them and makes fun of them in front of other students at Hogwarts. Harry eventually identifies Snape as the enemy, and I as the reader am encouraged to share that animosity. The animosity toward Snape grows stronger as the story progresses and reaches a climax when Snape kills Dumbledore, Harry's fatherly mentor, before Harry's eyes. It is not until after Snape is killed by Voldemort, the arch villain of the series, that we finally learn the whole of Snape's backstory. Only then does Harry – and the reader with him – learn that Snape was Dumbledore's most loyal ally and a close friend of Harry's deceased mother. We learn that Snape's harshness toward Harry is because of Harry's physical resemblance with Harry's father, who bullied Snape in their youth. After learning Snape’s backstory, Harry's hatred toward Snape, along with mine, disappeared. Harry gained a newfound respect toward Snape so strong that he named one of his sons after him; and I, the reader, fell in love with the character Snape.
In today’s climate, practicing civility, sharing different perspectives and learning about each other is necessary, though challenging. We may find it increasingly difficult to open up to others. Or, we may perceive there is danger in learning about someone's story. When we hear the perspective or background of another, not only could we be disappointed with what we might learn about another person, but we open ourselves up to the possibility that we could be wrong about that person.
When Harry discovers who Snape really is, he has to give up the hatred and assumptions toward Snape that he has developed over many years. When listening attentively to another person’s story, we too must be open to that possibility. Attentive listening is to listen without suspicion or presupposing that the other person is wrong. It is to assume that we do not already know all there is to know about that person. By practicing attentive listening, we are risking the possibility that our presuppositions about what is important to us might be challenged by what we hear. It is a perilous task, but we are not left at our own peril because it is also a divine command.
Attentive listening is a derivative of the second greatest commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). This practice precedes any act of love. How can we love our neighbor if we do not first know who our neighbor is? We could not start to care for them if we were ignorant of our neighbor's needs. Thus, the goal of attentive listening is understanding. There is a time to respond to what we have heard, but attentive listening precedes that. We cannot provide a response that does justice to the neighbor without first understanding who we are responding to. The purpose of attentive listening is to understand the neighbor’s story on their own terms in order to love them properly.
A divine commandment always comes with divine empowerment. We must remember that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). This love actually enables us to love others without fearing the risks involved (1 John 4:18). It is a sacrificial love that is a sign that God's love lives in us. 1 John 3:17 says, "[I]f anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" Because we know that God loves us, we need not be afraid to offer our neighbor the gift of our attention. If we open our hearts to listen to our neighbor, perhaps we will realize that something in us isn’t right. In addition, as Harry Potter gained a newfound perspective toward Snape, we might also be pleasantly surprised with a new friend.