How hard can it be to listen?
As a parish priest, I eventually learned that not everyone who comes to see me wants to hear what I have to say to them. At first I thought people were coming to gain the benefit of my experience (back when I actually had none!). But it soon dawned on me that many people who see a priest aren’t actually looking for solutions; they’re just looking for someone who will listen to them. And so I have learned to simply sit quietly and let the person pour out whatever is troubling them. It can be a remarkably effective method of counselling!
But on reflection there is something more than a little sad about this. I often get the feeling that people who come to be listened to by Abouna have no one else in their lives who will listen to them. Are we really that isolated from each other these days?
At this point I should point out that there is a difference between hearing and listening (yes, I stole that from ‘Sounds of Silence’). Most people have no problem hearing someone else speak. But they will often want to jump in and make their own comment; suggest a simple solution that the speaker was clearly too stupid to think of for themselves, or worse still, start talking about their own problems. Ask the listener what the speaker said, and all you will get is a blank stare, or one or two unimportant details. This kind of ‘hearing’ isn’t very helpful.
Listening, on the other hand, means to actually pay attention, to be genuinely interested, to forget your own world for a little while and really enter into the mind and world of the speaker. This kind of listening is surprisingly rare in our society today. And more’s the pity.
We have little trouble losing ourselves in a good novel or an exciting movie, but when it comes to a real live flesh-and-blood person sitting in front of us – well, how can they compete? Especially if that real person happens to be someone close to you, like a member of your family. How could a family member possibly be interesting? Why should I waste my time listening to his/her drivel about some boring incident that happened at the supermarket?
Love means to go out of yourself, to escape the dingy little prison of the ego. I am an incredibly limited being, yet my sense of my own importance in the world is always greatly exaggerated. But love tells me that other people are important too. And interesting. How can anyone not be interested in other human beings? They are such amazing creatures! Even the dullest among them has some emotion, some paradox, some wisdom, some experience, some thought, some foible that can set off a whole line of contemplation and curiosity. Sometimes you agree with others, and other times you don’t, but both situations are really quite interesting. Why did I agree or disagree? Where does the right and wrong of the matter really lie?
But there is more to be gained from taking a genuine interest in others than just curiosity. There is connection. So many people today feel so isolated and alone, even though they live in the middle of a metropolis of millions. They meet thousands of people every day, on the roads, the footpaths, the shops, at work or school – and yet, they never really connect with any of them. Their dealings are superficial and efficient, but there is little warmth, little genuine interest in each other. And then, at the end of the day, they feel so lonely. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Take the time to stop and have a chat with someone today. Better still, get them talking, and then just sit there and really listen…