There is no greater agony
than having an untold story inside you.
In the summer of 2013, I was walking through a busy park in downtown Seattle, when I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. A woman sat in a folding chair, and next to her, a second folding chair sat empty except for a sign with two words boldly scrawled upon it: Free Listening. My breath caught as, only moments later, an older woman, seemingly homeless, sat down beside her, received a kind welcome, and began to talk. I watched them for several minutes as one woman talked and the other listened, struck by the beauty of this gift, the sacredness of this work.
Listening to the stories of another person truly is sacred work. But there is more to it than simply hearing, is there not? How we listen, how we enter in to the lives of others and hold their stories—whether we are willing to set aside competing priorities, our own agendas, our own desire to be heard—shapes the extent to which the act of listening is life-giving.
What would happen to our relationships if were willing to quiet our busyness, set aside our phones, let go of our to-do lists and agendas, and enter into a space with others where we can offer this sacred gift of listening? How might that impact our marriages, our friendships, our kids? How might our relationships move towards being places where we truly see and know and hear the other? Where we feel seen and known and heard? What if the simple act of listening began to erode the narrative of shame and inadequacy, the feelings of isolation, that are so prevalent?
I often think of the woman who was offering “free listening” to others on that beautiful summer day. I saw her with another person, a man this time, when I passed back through the park later that afternoon. I wonder how long she sat out there waiting, offering. I wonder if this is a gift that she extends to strangers on a regular basis, the gift of hearing their stories and, in doing so, validating their presence in this world. And I wonder about her own story, about what led her to give of herself so intentionally to others.
My hope is that in the midst of all of the life and responsibility and pressure and busyness, I will not lose sight of the profound simplicity of bearing witness to the stories of others. The beauty of simply listening.