As he walked past the marble facade of First Western Bank, Franz Kafka heard the bright, ringing sound of metal. It was not a heavy "clang." It was not the sound of a manhole cover or anything vaguely industrial. It was a much gentler sound. It was like the sound of one coin falling into a pile of coins.
Looking down at his feet, Franz Kafka saw a key. The key was made from polished brass. Letters were stamped into the part of the key that you hold with your fingers. Franz bent down to retrieve the key for a better look. He read the inscription to himself. It said, "First Western Bank -- Do Not Duplicate." The other side of the key was stamped with a series of numbers: "4-8-15-16-23-42."
Franz glanced at his watch, and saw that he still had plenty of time. "This will only take a minute," he assured himself. Franz walked into the bank, with the key still resting in the palm of his hand.
The bank building was old and ornate. There were more marble columns inside the lobby, and marble counters as well. The ceiling soared overhead. Something about the high ceiling made everyone talk in a whisper -- but even the whispers echoed loudly in the vaulted space. As he waited for the next available teller, Franz wondered why old banks were built to resemble a house of worship. Maybe, he decided, it's because they both make promises about the future.
The line of people inched its way forward. Finally, Franz stood first in line. The first person in line is always a celebrity, viewed with eyes of longing and resentment. Even more than most, this celebrity is short-lived. A teller called, "I can help whoever's next."
Franz stepped to the open space at the counter. He opened his mouth to speak, but the teller spoke first. She asked, "May I have your zip code, please?" Her hand was poised over a keyboard, ready to enter the data as it left his lips.
Of course Franz knew his own zip code. But the request seemed strangely out of place to him. In fact, the question caused his thoughts to stumble. In his imagination, Franz had already scripted this entire conversation. Franz envisioned himself saying, "I found this on the sidewalk outside." He would slide the key across the marble counter top, then remove his hand with a flourish. He had imagined that the teller would stare in disbelief. "This is very important!" she would say. "You have done a great service!" she would say. "Thank you!" she would say. Never had Franz imagined himself being asked for his zip code.
Reluctantly, Franz surrendered the five digits of his zip code. The teller entered each digit as he pronounced it. Tap-tap, Tap-tap-tap. Her eyes were on the computer screen. She said, "Thank you, sir. May I have your customer ID number?"
Franz cleared his throat, awkwardly. "Um, I don't have a customer ID number," he said. For the first time, the teller looked directly at Franz. "I don't have one," Franz repeated. "I found a key..."
The teller wasn't listening. She turned her gaze toward the long line of customers. To Franz, she said, "If you don't have a customer ID number, then you need to speak with a customer care representative." Then she called out, "I can help whoever is next!" Franz found himself displaced by another customer – a newly minted celebrity from the front of the line.
"I don't think I need this," Franz tried to explain. "I was just standing outside the bank..." The customer care representative held up a restraining hand. "I'm sorry," he said, "I can't talk to you at all unless you sign this document first." When Franz scrawled his signature across the dotted line, the customer care representative placed the document in a manilla folder. Satisfied, he asked, "Is this regarding a commercial account? Or residential?"
"Neither," Franz protested. The surface of the desk was covered with a sheet of glass. When Franz placed the key onto the desktop, it made a satisfying "clink." Franz asked, "Does this look familiar?"
"Of course," said the customer care representative. "That's a safety deposit key. I can't help you there. You will need to talk to someone across the hall."
At this point, Franz thought seriously about dropping the safety deposit key into the nearest trash can. But he couldn't do it. Instead, he walked across the hall. "Third time's a charm," Franz said to himself. "But I'd better tell Dora that I'm running late." Franz pulled the cell phone from his pocket and dialed the number.
After two rings, his call was answered by computer. Franz found himself lost in a maze of pre-recorded messages. "To continue this conversation in English, press one. Para Espanol..."
Meanwhile, Franz arrived at the marble counter labeled, "Safety Deposit Boxes." Franz was still pressing buttons. "To repeat this list of options, press 7 now." Franz pressed seven.
The bank officer asked Franz for his driver's license. Franz had expected something like this. He had grown accustomed to surrendering some parcel of information at every counter. With the phone still pressed to his ear, Franz put his driver's license on the counter, along with the safety deposit key he had found outside the bank.
The bank officer disappeared with both items. She was not gone for long. And when she returned, she was flanked by an imposing pair of security guards. The armed guards did not look happy. They were poised for trouble. With a start, Franz understood that he was the trouble. The bank officer regarded him with contempt. "We have already notified the police," she said. "They will be here any minute."
Franz put away his cell phone. "The police?" he cried. "What are you talking about?"
"Surprise!" taunted one of the security guards. "You think we're stupid? You waltz in here with a stolen safety deposit key – and you think we wouldn't notice? The name on your license doesn't even match the account."
"Match the account?" Franz couldn't believe what he was hearing. "I found the key outside. I just found the stupid key!"
"So you found a key," said the guard, "and you thought to yourself, ‘Hey! This is my lucky day. I found a bank key. I'll be rich!' Well, this ain't Oceans Eleven, buddy, and you ain't George Clooney. You're going to jail."
"I was trying to give it back!" Franz protested. "I found the key and I was just trying to give it back."
"Tell it to the judge," said the security officer. "I don't want to hear it." When the time came, Franz did tell his story to the judge. The judge was sympathetic, but mandatory sentencing laws forced her hand. Since it was his first offense, Franz was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Now he writes a blog that no one reads.
He is still waiting for someone to listen.
* * *
This is the world we've made for ourselves. Do you recognize the world in this story? We live in a world where we move information from account to account. We don't really listen anymore, we just move information around.
We don't really listen anymore, we just move information around. It's a pretty big difference.
In fact, we have come to see not listening as a skill of great importance. This has become a survival skill in our world. We are bombarded with information all the time. Jimmy Carter is out there, wanting to explain why he yelled at people in the Sudan. Marian Jones wants apologize for taking drugs and to ask for your forgiveness. The president of Iran wants your attention, and so does the president of Blackwater International. Shoe companies want your attention, so do soft drink companies and car makers. Everyone wants your attention.
In this environment, you have to learn the skill of not listening. You have to.
As we become better at non-listening, maybe we lose some of our ability to listen well.
When was the last time that you really worked at listening?
When we the last time that you felt someone really listened to you?
I want to listen to the people I love. In my best moments, I want to listen to the people with whom I disagree. I want to listen to God. I want to listen to my body. I want to listen to creation. I don't think any of those things will happen unless I learn to work at it.
What works for you? What practice helps you to listen?
As Friends, how do we model listening in a world where not listening has become a survival skill?