Witnessing

“But there is another kind of listening, a listening that we neglect at our own peril, that is not about getting some particular place, but simply about witnessing another human being. This kind of listening is long and open-ended. It’s patient. It’s curious. It’s not calculating. This kind of listening operates on only one level — the words coming out, the way they hit the ear, the shaping of a story, a sadness, a yearning, a wish.”

Courtney E. Martin, columnist for On Being

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The other day I had an intense and loving conversation with a friend. Her daughter has an eating disorder, her friend is very ill, someone else is going through difficult times, her neighbor has some mental health concerns that worry her, she herself has some auto immune issues, her body hurts……

I felt like if I spoke I would interrupt this flow of life she was trying to process. I really didn’t feel like I could offer very many words of advice, or comfort that would ease her hurt, so I listened. Just met her eyes and listened. She talked, and released, teared up, and regained composure. She talked more about how all these things happening to other people come creeping into her life and thoughts and prayers as worry and fear. She cried about the fear of the things happening to her. And I listened. She cried and struggled, but in a way it was like a beautiful song. A song of everything that makes us human.

When it was time to leave she hugged me tight “THANK YOU!!” she said, “for being here for me. For just listening.”

Then I came home and read an article on On Being With Krista Tippett, http://www.onbeing.org/about and thought, “Oh yes. This is it.”

Another kind of listening. Witnessing another human being. That’s what had transpired. What I had experienced with my friend were her words coming out shaping a story, sadness, yearnings, wishes. My witnessing her story by listening.

I wish we could do this more often. Not just with the people we love and care for, but also with the people we don’t know well, maybe shy away from, or fear. People who are not like us. People who have experiences we will never have. I wish we could witness their life story, their intrinsic value. Witness them as another human being.

I agree with the author that this other kind of listening can also happen when we are in positions where we can’t help but overhear the conversations of others…if we listen, we may hear their story. We may find ourselves witnessing their humanness, their tenderness or fragility. Their story. The person in the next booth at the diner. The person talking on the phone next to us in line. The two friends sharing coffee. The human interest stories on the news. The answer we get or maybe don’t get, when we ask, “How are you?”

At the end of the piece Courtney writes, “It’s an overlooked kind of love….and it doesn’t happen often enough.”

Can we offer this overlooked kind of love to others? Allowing “the shaping of a story, a sadness, a yearning, a wish” of another?

More than the general conversation we regularly have. More than the “Oh I know how you feel. That’s happened to ME!!” More than the “Hang in there, it will be ok.” More than offering suggestions and advice. More than answering our cell phone in the middle of someone’s sentence, waving our finger saying “Hold on just one minute.” More than what we usually do. Allowing it to be someone else’s story, experience, grief, joy. Allowing them to shape it, define it. Allowing it to be theirs. Witnessing the value and importance of this story for this person.

Do we? Do you?

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