My friend Jaenia tells a poignant story about going to a doctor’s appointment not too long ago. A couple of things about Jaenia – she is a strong woman. She loves her people well and bears the burdens of others, always offering hope. What some don’t know is that all of this comes at a personal cost.
At the time of the visit, she was going through some difficult things in her personal life. Just prior to arriving, tears were streaming down her cheeks. She pulled herself together long enough to sign in, but the minute she got into the exam room and saw the doctor, she choked up again.
“What’s going on?” said her doctor. And with that, the tears began to fall again. The doctor reached for a box of Kleenex and handed it to her. Jaenia did what most of us do during these situations. She began to apologize. The provider stopped her and said “It matters. All of this matters.” And then she allowed her to cry.
“It matters. All of this matters” This is wholistic care at its best.
Sometimes we think we have to have all the right words, that if we don’t we dishonor the one who is in front of us with their tears flowing. But sometimes, all we need to do is give kleenex and wait. Our waiting is a nonverbal affirmation that the person in our midst matters, their pain is acknowledged through patient waiting and kleenex.
This is part of what it is to bear witness to stories, whether they be stories of pain or of joy. I often talk about the ingredients to active listening and bearing witness being about the head, the heart, and the body. We listen with our heads, our intellect, the brain we’ve been gifted, the knowledge we have; we listen with our hearts, the pain and joy of our own experiences moving out of self absorption and into an empathy for the one in front of us; and we listen with our physcial selves, our bodies tuned in to the story that we are now honored to hear.
Kleenex, patient waiting, bearing witness with our heads, hearts, and bodies – it all matters. It’s what makes fractured hearts heal, one person at a time.
Years ago at my brother Tom’s first Christmas as a married man, another brother, Stan (stay with me here – I have four brothers) gave him a Christmas gift that was envied by all. It was two couch pillows, made especially by Stan. One said in bold, machine-embroidered letters “Don’t interrupt while I’m speaking” while the other replied “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting.”
The cushions were a humorous duo, the perfect gift for a newly married couple at their first Christmas together.
While the pillows were funny, living out interruptions on a regular basis is not. When I think about faith and faith dialogue, the “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting” phrase has been my mantra far too often. Even as people open their mouths to speak a sentence or articulate an opinion or belief on faith, I’m busy framing my reply. What an indictment on my willingness to hear another point of view; another’s words that will allow me to enter into a deeper relationship.
I have analyzed this inability to listen and I’ve come up with a fairly simple reason I don’t want people to speak while I’m interrupting. Fear. One little word with many ramifications. I am afraid that my faith cannot withstand argument. It is simultaneously troubling and freeing to admit this in a public forum.
It’s fear that I won’t have the answers to the many questions that can arise on evil, life, sin and eternity.
It’s fear that I will sound foolish in my feeble attempts at explanation.
It’s fear that my faith, this faith that is the foundation of my life, will be found wanting.
It’s fear that I will not have a defense.
And as foolish as it sounds, its fear that if I listen, if I take the time to understand, somehow that will spell “compromise” that dreaded slippery slope of a word.
In a recent Facebook discussion, I confessed this to someone who, it’s safe to say, has some different views than I. Elena is a critical thinker and while she has strong opinions, she clearly wants dialogue. So much so that she has begun a Facebook page called “Civilities”. On this page she invites others to react and reflect, always bearing in mind the importance of true dialogue.
Here is an excerpt from the discussion:
It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I realized how bad I was at listening and how much I had been schooled in a vocabulary that those who did not share my faith couldn’t understand. I always thought I had to have a defense….and I think that may be what you’re talking about. Somehow, despite having a family that were great at discussions and critical thinking, I got it in my head that I had to have answers. All the answers. Constant defending is exhausting and crushes friendships. The need to defend changed for me as I began going through an introduction to Christianity where the goal is to listen and where there is a recognition that none of us have the power to convert. If I can convert you then someone else can convert you back. My whole world has changed as I’ve been let into the arguments and pain that Christianity has caused some of my friends. Those friendships are so strong, because I have no agenda. I love my friends and they love me without me having to defend a position. I have met more and more Christians in this area that are well able to engage in dialogue without coming across as dogmatic, doing so with respect and care, and a “free exchange” of ideas as you state, but I know that is not always the case…. “
The conversation went on and brought in several different view points and people. It was one of those rare times when people listened to each other and because of this all involved felt like they had been heard, had expressed what they wanted and had learned in the process.
Listening takes humility.
Listening takes time.
Listening means giving up control.
And it’s worth it. But as a talker I will be “in process” when it comes to listening until the day I die. Sometimes it will go well and there is no doubt that there will be other times when I will be living out the mantra “Don’t Speak While I’m Interrupting!” But I have tasted of the kind of conversation and friendship that can result from listening, the kind of faith dialogue that makes people want to hear more, and now that I have tasted of that sort of encounter, I will never be the same.