The California shootings and the art of listening

It's time to put down our iphones to make space for real human relationships.

We were in the living room, a basket of children’s books beneath the coffee table; I was leaning against Trent as we visited with friends of ours in the city.

Our pastor-friend was talking about a conversation he’d had the other week.

“It wasn’t about anything remarkable,” our friend said. “Nothing out of the ordinary. But the way my friend listened – the way he heard me, the way he reiterated what I was saying – it made me cry.”

We were silent. Our friend is not prone to crying. And he couldn’t even remember the topic he had been talking about. But it was the very act of being listened to – the interest the listener had shown in him and his story, however mundane it was – that moved him to tears.

And I wonder if this isn’t what the world needs? This Instagrammed world. This world so crowded with technology there’s no space for human touch.

We need to re-learn the art of listening.

We need to put down our iPhones and look into the eyes of the very real people sitting across the table from us.

Because when someone makes the quietest motion, when he opens up his heart and invites another person’s story in, and not only welcomes it but allows it to take root and grow, it’s beautiful enough, and rare enough, to bring the storyteller to tears.

Ears to hear

And yet, when there’s no listening – when there are 22 YouTube videos with desperate cries for help that go unheard – we have a 22-year-old opening fire on a Santa Barbara City College and murdering six of his schoolmates and then himself.

Yes, Elliot Rodgers was mentally ill. And yes, he is to blame for the shootings that traumatized a Santa Barbara college in the last week of May. It angers me that so many precious lives were lost.

However, my heart hurts for Elliot, too.

I too am mentally ill, but my eating disorder stemmed from a longing to be heard as a child.

I know that a lot of mental illness is biological, but how much of it is emotional and sociological? How many mental illnesses could be slightly, if not significantly, relieved by the power, and loyalty, of friendship? The kind of old-fashioned friendship that sees and hears a person instead of only ever texting them?

Elliot’s story is painful for many reasons, not least because any of the players could be us. We’ve felt the loneliness he describes. We’ve experienced the victimization on all sides and some of us can trace those feelings and that same desire to lash out with evil.

Had Elliot accepted the help he was offered, or had more help been offered him, or had only a few things been different, this tragedy might not have happened. But the point is this: who hasn’t felt a desire for “retribution?” Who can’t appreciate the basic carnal struggle he faced alone, powerless to alleviate it?

Empathy is what we need, not excuses or blaming.

Killers are responsible for their harmful choices and no one is excused for allowing dangerous people their evil way. But who will be responsible and accept that responsibility? Who will be caring? Who will ask the important questions? Who will sacrifice their own happiness for someone else’s? Who will give those who feel victimized the chance to speak?
Our obsession with technology – and subsequent avoidance of humanity – is killing us, world. It’s killing us, and it’s turning our kids into killers.

It’s time to put down our iPhones and listen to the cries of our youth before it’s too late.


  • Emily Wierenga

    Emily Wierenga is a wife and mother who is passionate about the church and lives in northern Alberta. She is the author of the memoirs Atlas Girl and Making it Home (Baker Books), and the founder of a non-profit working in Africa and Asia.

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