Amidst the carols and hymns of the season and the good cheer of fireworks and fun, there rang through our nation the bells of mourning. In an interview following the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, author Eugene Patterson suggested the best response to overwhelming grief might simply be silence. Sometimes there are no words. And sometimes people just need a quiet presence of support.
I am a volunteer at a place in Anchorage called the Listening Post, where the art of listening is a way to honor people whose stories are seldom heard. It’s a quiet place in the busy transit center where buses come and go and where the homeless of the city often come to get warm. Here at the Listening Post, men and women drop in and brew a cup of tea. Guests can tell their stories or simply sit in quiet prayer or meditation. All are welcome. As volunteers, our job is simply to listen.
It’s not as easy as it might appear. In our daily conversations at work and at home, we commonly hear with the intent of sharing our own experience. We think about what we’ll say next and how we’ll respond. Our thoughts race ahead of our words as we react to what is said. How often do we move beyond hearing to really listen? In our volunteer training, we are asked to remember a time when we were really listened to and what that felt like. The answers often given are, “It felt like acceptance.” “It felt like being known.” “It felt like love.”
Listening is the heart and art of holding someone’s story, gently and without judgment. It means silencing the inner voices that want to respond in ways that draw conclusions or offer help. For those mothers of us who are volunteers, that can be a tall order. The stories are sometimes wrenching. It’s hard not to want to rescue people. It’s hard some days not to invite someone home. But our job is to meet people where they are at, not to change their circumstances, but rather to walk alongside them for a time.
To be honest, listening often doesn’t feel like enough. There are hungry bellies to feed, warm shelters to build, needy hands to grasp and lift up. And for these things there are charities and food banks, and a multitude of organizations and services. At times there are no ready answers. Just as one problem is solved, another issue takes its place. While it is important to address these social issues, sometimes it is just as important to address the person. To honor their story and to offer them the quiet dignity of truly being heard.
At the Listening Post, we hear at times a thunder of tears. Sirens of rage. The keening of broken hearts. But we also hear gentle peals of laughter and always, always, the song of gratitude. The practice of listening, fully present to the person who is speaking, is a gift both given and received.
We don’t need to go far to practice the art of listening. It can start in our homes, our schools, and our communities. It requires only the willingness to be silent, to offer acceptance, and to hold each other’s stories with dignity. No judgment, no preaching, no advice. Just the quiet honoring of the sacredness of each person’s life.
In light of the recent heartbreak of our nation mourning a classroom of children, it seems that silence and the art of listening are more important than ever. What if we were to turn down the noise in our lives and really listen? What would we hear? What possibilities might arise from being wholly present to the moment and to the person at hand?
Read more about what the Listening Post at the website www.listeningpostanchorage.ocm
The Listening Post is staffed and furnished by volunteers. The main expense is rent and is funded solely by donations. If you are interested in supporting the Listening Post, please consider making a donation. Donations can be made by sending a check to the following address and please be sure to write “The Listening Post” in the memo line!
The Listening Post
1303 W. 33rd Ave.
Anchorage, AK 99503