I find that listening is a gift whether I am the one with open ears and an open heart or I am the one speaking.
It’s often actually very challenging for me to just listen, more so with those that aren’t used to being listened to and tend to ask questions or feel uncomfortable with a lot of eye contact and silence.
Every time that I open myself to listen, I find that I need to constantly remind myself that “just listening” really works. Nothing else is necessary. But I want to say, “You are not alone.” Yes, I feel that too,” “I have been there,” “This is something that really helped me.” And yet, I’ve learned that if I hold back those sentences for a time, the person speaking can go deeper into their story, their experience, and sometimes, they even get around to a breakthrough or deep realization about something.
Because I have volunteered a few times to listen with Sidewalk Talk and because I have a listening partner that I exchange listening sessions with, I know how much I look forward to both listening and being listened to. It’s different than normal conversation and it’s incredibly healing for me.
On Sidewalk Talk listening occasions, I have been available to listen to all kinds of people I would not normally have contact with. Most recently I was incredibly moved by the bravery of several different men that I listened to. I heard a young man speaking about struggling mightily with anxiety and that he was not sure that he qualified as having a mental illness. He told me of the intense ways anxiety was altering his life and physical body, while also minimizing its severity and repeating that “It’s not that bad.” But it sounded very bad to me.
In this instance I just couldn’t help myself from speaking to him to say that it doesn’t have to be “that bad” to get some support. I also let him know that almost everyone I talk to about my anxiety can relate. It’s much more prevalent than we think and talking about it in the right setting tends to be calming.
Another man was a celebrated doctor in his country and cannot find a job here. He works as a janitor in a hospital and isn’t making enough money to support himself. It takes so much of his energy to be kind and polite to people all day while cleaning up after them and he is just barely holding himself together. He feels constant pressure to be a strong, successful man. Asking for help or admitting any needs do not seem like real options to him.
It’s hard to wrap my heart around why so many of us have the instinct to hide our struggles, to go it alone and muscle through our days clinging to the illusion that we are fine and do not need anything from anyone. I know that is what I did for most of my life, and it seemed like everyone else around me was doing just fine also, even though I know that’s not likely to be true.
It takes a lot of courage to admit that we are not fine, we don’t know what we are going to do about it, and we need some help with our work, our feelings, our bills, our spirituality, our physical bodies, anything and everything. And we might not get the help that we need the way that we like it or any help at all, but something about naming it, speaking it and getting it outside of our heads it a very important step.
When listening on the street, I’m aware that it is a brave act for a person to stop, sit down in a chair and speak to a stranger who is offering listening. I try to convey with my entire being that I am a safe person, that their words and feelings are safe with me. It’s vulnerable as a listener to sit there open and ready and have many people walk past you without stopping. Some people smile and look away, some pause slightly, but then keep going. I feel hopeful, eager almost, for someone to stop, sit down and speak to me. It’s a little about my need to give, but mostly about my desire to hear a deeper heartbeat of our human feelings and emotions just beneath the surface of our day to day lives.
It’s often hard for people to believe that a person in the street with a listening sign does not want something from them. We are so used to a constant stream of advertising, pleas to donate money, save the environment, buy something, give our email address, sign up for a credit card or an online course.
It’s a bit shocking that someone would be offering listening for free with no catch, no hidden agenda, just a free service hoping to bring more presence, kindness and compassion to the world. I realized that even someone that just glanced up at the Listening=Love sign may let those words into their life or subconscious mind and it can have a positive effect.
I can deeply relate to most of what I hear from people and it heals the false feelings that tell me I’m are alone and that my pain is somehow more vivid or excruciating than someone else’s.
18 years ago, when I went to graduate school to learn about how to be a therapist, I would fixate on the pain that I heard others expressing. I would wrack my brain for how to help and feel so terrified if I didn’t know or have any ideas.
I was afraid of my own pain, so unable to be still in it and just feel my feelings. I thought that we had to do something with feelings. I simply misunderstood and mistrusted the true power of being witnessed and heard in our feelings can have.
Even today it takes great faith in myself and in humanity to exercise the muscle of sitting in my fear for myself and for others and allowing it to be there while all the feelings work themselves out and allow us to see a way to move forward.