Listening to an Ass

There are times when I just don't want to listen anymore. Some bozo is blathering on about some issue, some hot topic, some rumor, some half-digested gristle of a bone-headed idea. Not only that, but this individual is passionate about it. And there are few things as irritating as the passionate pontificating of an an annoying ass.

I decided to look up on Google the answer to the question, "how do you spell the sound a donkey makes?" I was surprised to find the wiki.answers.com had the answer in over 20 languages. I guess there are pronunciations in other languages that just don't transliterate well.

For the Danish, the donkey says, "aeslet skryder" which would actually be pretty amazing. Apparently though, to most languages donkey's say something like "hee-haw".  The inverted sounds of Ukrainian and Turkish donkey's undoubtedly make for some lame arguments as Turkish donkeys bray "a-iii, a-iii" while the contrary Ukrainian donkeys counter with "ii-aa, ii-aa." However the Hindi donkeys may be my favorite with their unique "si-po, si-po" (see wiki.answers for more).

Perhaps the best way to listen to an ass, is to figure out where it is from. Maybe Ukrainian donkeys pronounce things differently because of their experiences. The Scandinavian donkeys with their complex sounds may be some evolutionary derivation from long dark winter nights and the desire to talk about something else other than the same old same old.

Even an Ass Needs to be Heard

Somewhere along the way, we have to realize the ass will keep braying loudly, just so it can be heard. Even an ass needs to have a voice. But even more, maybe the lone voice of the one ass is actually the one voice that is most needed.

Several years ago I learned a consulting technique from Pat Taylor Ellison of Church Innovations. We had a process of gathering stories from a local congregation or parish. It was a form of local ethnography. We listened to the storied responses to key questions from which the congregation wanted to gain insight. The questions were always framed with appreciative inquiry in mind, so the "answers" were actually responses to prompts asking for stories.

In democratic societies, we tend to to think that which ever story or opinion is provided most often must be the correct answer, the most insightful answer. We tend to conflate the prevailing narrative into being the correct, important, or key narrative. But what I learned from Pat and the process she taught was that the lone voice with a unique story was important as well, and could actually be the most important voice to listen to.

That Braying Ass

In the story of Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, we learn that he rides upon an unnamed donkey. It is the donkey here that is the hero of the story. In The Message, the story is told from Numbers 22:21-33

Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went off with the noblemen from Moab. As he was going, though, God’s anger flared. The angel of God stood in the road to block his way. Balaam was riding his donkey, accompanied by his two servants. When the donkey saw the angel blocking the road and brandishing a sword, she veered off the road into the ditch. Balaam beat the donkey and got her back on the road.


But as they were going through a vineyard, with a fence on either side, the donkey again saw God’s angel blocking the way and veered into the fence, crushing Balaam’s foot against the fence. Balaam hit her again.


God’s angel blocked the way yet again—a very narrow passage this time; there was no getting through on the right or left. Seeing the angel, Balaam’s donkey sat down under him. Balaam lost his temper; he beat the donkey with his stick.


Then God gave speech to the donkey. She said to Balaam: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?”

Balaam said, “Because you've been playing games with me! If I had a sword I would have killed you by now.”


The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your trusty donkey on whom you’ve ridden for years right up until now? Have I ever done anything like this to you before? Have I?”He said, “No.”

Then God helped Balaam see what was going on: He saw God’s angel blocking the way, brandishing a sword. Balaam fell to the ground, his face in the dirt.


God’s angel said to him: “Why have you beaten your poor donkey these three times? I have come here to block your way because you’re getting way ahead of yourself. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she hadn’t, I would have killed you by this time, but not the donkey. I would have let her off.”

How do You Listen to an Ass?

1. Where's that sound coming from, part 1?

Most likely that braying sound is not coming from your ride, or from the sound of those with whom you travel through your days. More likely, it is from beside the path or at a distance. It might be coming from the places others don't usually visit, aside from the crowd, from the outlier. The outlier is one who is not reflected in the prevailing statistical averages. They are the anomaly, the odd ball. As a result, they are sometimes in social isolation. I'm reminded of a church marquee during a national election week. The message on the sign stated, "The majority is rarely correct." There are times that those who are not enmeshed with the staus quo actually see things with greater clarity. Who are those who are alone, isolated, odd-ball characters in your life? What are they saying? Might there be a kernel of wisdom worthy of of consideration from their unique perspective?

2. Where's that sound coming from, part 2?

As listening skills atrophy in our overly connected culture (see Together Alone, Sherry Turkle) our ability to "attend to" another person is correspondingly weakened. Attentional listening not only listens to denotative content (attentive listening, as it has been taught), but attends to the humanity of the person communicating. What is said from the history, perspective, the emotional center of the person is not always reflected in the words. Attentional listening forces the exercise of empathy and careful attention to the non-verbals, the context, and the timing. Where, then in the life of the person, is this sound emerging?

3. Learning the languages of asses (see above wiki reference)

Not everyone means the same thing when they use familiar words. I recall learning the difference between conversational questions, and rhetorical statements intended to hide criticism. Once I was asked if I thought my preaching was satisfactory. When I answered, I thought with humility, stating that I believed I knew the congregation, I believed I had studied the texts well, and that the applications and illustrations were helpful. I also stated that I wasn't used to preaching so infrequently and that I felt as if I was not in rhythm, was a little out of sorts. It was a couple years later that I was told that was an argumentative answer. That I had been criticized for not preaching well and I argued back. I was told I should have known that the question to me was not a question, but a statement; and, I should have been aware of the passive aggressive habit of the questioner and the culture.

Learn the language of the culture!

4. Some asses are quieter than other

Isaiah describes the quiet voice of the suffering servant (Isa 42), as one who "will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street".  This simply make me wonder if there are important promptings we are just missing. 

Listen closely. Maybe the next ass you hear might be braying in Danish, "aeslet skryder, aeslet skryder!"