I CAN'T TELL you how happy I was to see "Mumford." After a summer of gimmicky thrill rides and farces, it was such a relief to enter into the quiet rhythms of dialogue written by Lawrence Kasdan ("The Big Chill," "Grand Canyon"), and hilarious performances from Jason Lee, Martin Short, Ted Danson, and David Paymer, among others. This smart, funny movie takes place in a small town where Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean) has established a thriving psychology practice a scant four months after arriving. The secret behind his success is simply this: he listens, and he cares.
I'm sure that real psychologists would take offense at the notion that their years of schooling and research cannot help people better than simple listening. They're probably right. But the movie isn't trying to slam psychology as much as it is encouraging people to listen to each other -- to really pay attention -- and perhaps even care enough to help each other improve.
I've always been a pretty good listener, not so much through any virtue of mine but probably because I'm kind of shy and quiet around people I don't know too well. I've noticed that people are apt to trust me with their stories and their secrets, and that's something I treasure. Openness and vulnerability are hugely important in our increasingly fragmented lives. In his book Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner puts it this way: "It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing."
In my deepest friendships we share secrets, and yet there is a second component that really cements that friendship beyond moods, distance, time, or disagreements. My best friends are those who not only listen to who I truly and fully am but also care about helping me become who I truly and fully want to be. A pivotal moment in my life was the night that Kent Straith and I took a walk up and down the street I lived on, told each other the secrets closest to our hearts, and shared our advice for each other. We'd been friends for years before that night, but after that we were best friends, friends who made an investment to help each other improve. We still refer to that night as "The Walk," and every so often when I get a chance to drive back to Michigan and visit him in person, we take a "Walk" (we call it that even if we're sitting in the living room, like last time) where we share our most private selves.
I asked my wife, Amanda, on our first date after a similar occurrence. We'd been friends for several months, but I still wasn't sure if I wanted to ask her out because love just seemed too hard to even try for after 20 years of failure. We'd had a lot of good conversations together about our spiritual lives, and I knew that we were good at listening to each other. Then one day Amanda gave me a photocopied article by Henri Nouwen talking about a lot of the issues I was struggling with. In the margins Amanda made both funny comments and empathetic comments that encouraged me to become who I wanted. After that, I knew that our relationship was so special that I had to take a chance on love. (The rest, as they say, is history.)
So, in many ways, "Mumford" was telling me something that I already knew. And I do know it mentally; I know it from experience; this should be part of my very blood by now. But I've found that truly paying attention to others is a constant battle that must be fought daily, not in some once-for-all event. Juggling work, this website, my freelance writing career, church activities, etc., etc., often gets my mind racing on one project or another and I find it too easy to tune out what Amanda's telling me. Every time I do that I feel awful; I have to work hard to make a change, because life never gets less busy. A recent Newsweek article said that what kids really want from their parents is not more time with them, but for them to be fully present in the time that they are together. I have to learn to fight the distractions, to clear my mind and be fully present in the moment. My mind is often preoccupied with doing things for God, not being in the moment where he's put me.
Take for example yesterday morning, when I was quieting my spirit for worship by reading a Frederick Buechner book before church, and one of the church leaders came up to me and asked what I was reading. I told him, and he asked if Buechner was a contemplative, like Henri Nouwen. Yes, that's right -- I was about to tell him how both Buechner and Nouwen have had a profound impact on my life, as you have probably surmised from this article. Then he told me he knew then that he probably wouldn't like the book much. And my first reaction was: Well, I wasn't sitting here reading this book in hopes of making you read it! And then, right on top of that: What are you, some kind of spiritual baby, not to enjoy anything contemplative? -- because, of course, my spiritual temperament is contemplative. I went back to my book, but before long I was deeply ashamed. First of all, I thought I'd been preparing my spirit for worship, but at a moment's notice I was full of defensiveness, indignation, and wrath. I got a sense of how broken I truly am. But secondly I was ashamed because I didn't act like Dr. Mumford; I didn't listen to him. I should have turned the conversation around and asked him what books he did enjoy. I could have used the opportunity to learn more about this guy I haven't taken the time to know well. I should have remembered Gary Thomas' book "Sacred Pathways," which I read only three months ago, that describes at least nine different spiritual temperaments of Christians.
I was ashamed because I do not practice what I preach. On this website, I talk about how we should listen to one another's opinions about movies in hopes of learning something about who they are and what they value, rather than just arguing about the movie itself. But given the chance to do something similar with Christian authors, I froze up. I suspect that this website is as much for me as it is for you. I think I need this site to train myself to act the way I want to, to make listening part of who I am, to make it flow much more effortlessly than it does now. "Mumford" certainly isn't the only movie that encourages listening, but as you have witnessed, the heart forgets. It was a joy for me to see the film because it made the old maxim resonate again.