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First, Listen: Religion's Call in a Busy World

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And [G-d] said, 'Go and say to this people:
"Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand."

--Isaiah 6:9

I interned in New York City this past summer, trying to survive on a student budget while I have "real-life professional experiences" which, according to my college, will help me figure out what I'm doing with my life -- "my call," if you will.

But it's not easy listening for a "call" in the noisy hustle of New York. The city has a culture of fast movement and clear-cut goals. People like earphones and dislike eye contact. It's hard to find time to simply be still and think. It seems there is always something you should be doing instead.

Tim Kreider's recent article about the modern phenomenon of constant busyness hit home for me. He argues that our need to be constantly busy is unnatural and unhealthy, because it deprives us of the space in our lives to develop creativity and insight. "Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness," he writes. "I can't help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn't a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn't matter."

My favorite college religion professor often tells me that religion is fundamentally about the universal human question, How do we live? It's a question we ask ourselves every day. The world is complicated. So now what? How do we live in a world filled with noise and ambiguity? How can we listen for a call through the din?

This question is a part of our collective human narrative. Our struggle to navigate life in a complex world is reflected in our art, music, literature, cultures and religious texts. The ancient prophet Isaiah of the Hebrew Bible essentially threw up his hands and said, "I'm living in this complicated world full of imperfect people! I don't have any answers. So how do I live amongst all this?"

G-d responds to Isaiah, "Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.'" Well that really clears some things up, doesn't it? But there's another translation of this verse, based on the Greek version, that reads:

You will be ever hearing, but never understanding; you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving. This people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.

G-d creates this poetic distinction between hearing and understanding, looking and perceiving what is before us. There's a difference.

How often do we go about our day frantically busying ourselves with what we think is important, yet at the end of the day we can hardly remember what happened? G-d says that we're looking with our eyes and listening with our ears, but we're not comprehending with our hearts. We're not internalizing what we take in.

In other words, we are not fully present. And simply being present is the first step according to any religious tradition. How do we live? Well, first, open up and begin paying more attention to the world around you. The Buddha said it, Sufi poets wrote it and G-d calls us to do it.

Religion, to me, has always been about listening. We are not here to tell people what to think or believe, but rather to help one another pay more attention. In churches, synagogues, mosques and ashrams, we create spaces to listen intentionally. We set aside one holy moment every week to sit still and listen in community. We open ourselves up to both our own thoughts and experiences and to those of others.

Many of my friends see religion as an institution created to give right and wrong answers. But I have experienced religion as a resource to deal with the sticky questions we face every day in our complicated and messy world. Our questions are what unite us across traditions, creeds and cultures. It is everyone's story: a narrative of profound unknowing.

I feel this call not to tell other people what to believe or that they are wrong in their understanding of religion, but to remind them, and myself, that nothing is black and white. Everything that matters is complicated. If you think something important is also simple, it's not.

Mark Twain wrote, "whenever you find yourself among the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." We are each among the majority sometimes. We are all guilty of over-simplifying and wanting to close our eyes and ears.

It's hard to acknowledge that there might be more beyond our tightly held truths. It's hard to listen to people we disagree with.

It's hard to have compassion for those whose ideas enrage or scare us. Maybe it's even harder to have compassion for those we enrage or scare.

It is really hard to deal with the fact that life is complicated and we just don't have the answers.

We turn to G-d and say, "How do we live?"

And G-d says: First, listen.