I wonder if you’ve ever had someone listen to you. Really listen.
Can you picture her face? Take a minute. Remember the way she raised her eyebrows, how her smile broke slow to say, “Keep going, I’m with you.” Can you hear the well timed questions she asked that invited the rest of the story to roll out like water spilling over the dam of your inhibition? The way he would sit in the silence, not rushing you to tie up every detail into a tidy, doubt-free bow? How he listened to your words, but also for the emotion and intent of your heart?
I have to admit, I’m a talker more than a listener. As a child I was always the one still talking late into the night, long after my sister fell asleep. In middle school I closed down the sleepovers with long-winded pondering. I pushed the time limits in speech class, and chronically talked until those archaic answering machines of a bygone day rudely beeped an end to my wordiness. Now voxer cuts me off at the fifteen minute mark.
As a teenager, I once spent half an hour chatting with a friend’s aunt at a family function, clamoring away about weather and news and all my adolescent views about all topics I could exhaust before my dear friend popped her head in to tell me that her aunt was deaf, and only read lips in Italian. Half an hour of my voice alone, and still I didn’t realize I was the only one speaking. Sometimes we don’t realize we’re not having a conversation.
I know I’m lucky, to have grown up with not just my friend’s gracious (and very amused) aunt listen to rambling tangents, but many a friend and mentor, sister and mother, listening to me all those years. But it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began to truly value the listeners in my life. It was after my sister’s death, when I couldn’t articulate the waves of grief, when I had no vocabulary for the foundation-splintering doubt that began to seep in, that the listeners changed me.
It was one of those old sleep-over friends, facing her own waves of doubt, that made a safe place for me to ask the dark questions. (Where was God in the pain?)
It was a therapist, who helped me separate my pain from others’ experiences of grief. (It’s okay to feel angry.)
It was pastor whose words I would have once judged as watered-down gospel, whose steady messages of God’s unchanging love sured my foundations back up. (You are loved.)
It was friends who let tears fall alongside mine, and stayed near when my process was more judgement than mercy. (You are not alone.)
The friends, the therapist, the pastor – they taught me to listen by example.
Listening affords the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s story, to understand those whose lives are completely different from ours. It gives us a window into what we don’t know we don’t know. In learning to listen, at the feet of those who do it so well, I am beginning to see the world differently. In learning to listen, I have been entrusted with stories of longing, discrimination, heartache, and abuse I could not otherwise know. In learning to listen, we receive the gift of front row seats to the handiwork of a creative God who has made all people in the image of God. We are gifted the adventure of uncovering the Imago Dei underneath and in the midst of people’s layered lives.
In a world of platforms we’re all welcome to talk. Let’s also learn to listen. Let’s not just listen to make ourselves more well-rounded, more justice-minded, better able to speak on a variety of topics. Let’s listen to learn, to be changed, to make space and hold space. Let’s listen to see how each brother and sister is made in the image of God, and celebrate our Creator, as we see the Image of God embodied in the lives of those we meet.
I’d love to hear how listening is shaping you.