The discipline of listening
For the aching heart, an open ear may be the best comfort
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Lately I’ve found myself receiving numerous cries for comfort from my friends. They are cries of anxiety, grief, depression, loneliness, and suffering. As I struggle to respond to them, I am reminded once again that nothing is harder—and yet nothing is easier—than caring for someone in pain.
Many years ago, I received such a cry from a friend who sent me a long email saying he was still struggling with eating-disordered thoughts. He and I had first bonded over our common history of eating disorders, and at the time of his email a year later, I was high with the daily victories of recovery, flushed with a rush of can-do attitude. So after reading his email, I sent him a longer email with what I thought was an empathetic message, adding a healthy dose of Scriptures and advice. I felt good about what I had written, optimistic that my words would uplift him and maybe even spark some much-needed motivation to drag himself out of his rut.
Instead, my friend responded with an email that jolted me: “Sophia, thanks for your advice, but I don’t need a sermon from you right now. I don’t want a preacher. What I need is a friend. I thought you of all people would understand what I’m dealing with right now.”
As I thought over and over about his email, I realized I had read his signals all wrong: I had assumed he wanted me to make his negative feelings go away, to help “fix” his issues. But that wasn’t actually what I was capable of giving. What he needed—and what I could give—was for me to simply listen, to be with him in his pain, and to share his burdens. Instead, I was giving him what I wanted for him—and frankly, my motivation was selfish and arrogant: I wanted him to feel better so that I also felt better. I also wanted credit for making him feel better.
Over the years, I’ve tried to remember that incident every time someone comes to me for comfort. I’ve not always done well. I’m a preacher’s daughter after all. There is a time for advice, and there is a time to shut up and listen. It’s a challenge to discern when those times are right, and I’ve sometimes spoken too strongly without fully trying to listen. At other times, I’ve made the opposite mistake, passively listening when I should have spoken words of gentle yet honest admonishment.
If anything, being a journalist has helped me in this area. As a journalist, when I’m interviewing someone about his or her story of suffering, my first response is awe and appreciation that someone would willingly share something so personal with me. So the first thing I do is thank the person for opening up. Then I listen: I make eye contact and respond with nods or noises to show that I’m actively engaged. I try to limit my facial expressions. I ask curious and open-ended questions aimed at better understanding the person, questions that reassure the interviewee I’m genuinely interested in him. I try to avoid making presumptions—much easier to accomplish with an interviewee, since I typically hold no preconceived image of him, than with a longtime friend or family member. And when someone bursts out crying, I sit in silence.
There’s something mysteriously comforting about sitting in silence with a person in his pain.
There’s something mysteriously comforting about sitting in silence with a person in his pain. I know because a while ago, something happened to me, and I called a friend. I was alone in my apartment and just needed to feel the presence of something other than my anguish, fears, and tears. The moment my friend heard my voice over the phone, she said, “Uh-oh. Seems like you need someone to be there with you right now. Hold tight, I’ll be right there.”
This friend lived 9 miles away and didn’t have a car. But she immediately called an Uber and spent about $25 each way to get to me. Then she sat beside me, put an arm around me, and listened. Sometimes we didn’t say anything, but sat in silence as I wept, and she even wept with me. And though she didn’t fix any of my problems, she did the best thing she could have done at the time: She was with me. It told me I was not alone, that I was loved, that I could fall and someone would catch me.
I try to practice the grace, humility, and lovingkindness my friend demonstrated that day. It’s not easy, because I have to fight my natural inclinations toward impatience and selfishness and pride. But it’s also easy, because the burden isn’t on me to fix things—often impossible for anyone other than God—but to simply listen.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” That encourages me, because it reminds me that the practice of caring for others begins in God. Since this is the sort of fellowship God desires, both with Him and with others, wouldn’t the God whose Spirit dwells in me gladly help me in this process of learning to practice fellowship well?
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