In our didactic this week, we heard a quote by Fredrick Buechner, an American writer and Presbyterian minister. Buechner says, “Be kind enough to others to listen, beneath all the words they speak…maybe we can help bring holiness to birth both in them and in us.” As Buechner says, we need to listen not just to the words themselves, but to what lies beneath those words. That is when we can find the truest meaning of what we are saying. As chaplains, we are taught not just to listen to the words of a patient, but to listen to the unspoken language and see if we can crack into the depth of the person. This is where some of our deepest connections and discoveries take place. What might you learn from someone else by listening to his/her story?
Today I visited a man in his 60s who was just diagnosed with cancer of the spine. As I was leaving, he grabbed my hand, began to cry and choked out, “Thank you for listening to me, chaplain.” I realized that, prior to the closing prayer, I had only said about five words to this man in the whole visit. But the man didn’t need words – he needed someone to listen as he talked about his fears: fears about cancer, how he will pay his medical bills, whether or not he’ll be able to go back to work, how he’ll be able to take care of his wife after this diagnosis. And then I realized that listening is a gift that I can give every person I encounter at the hospital. It is a gift without dollar value, yet it is priceless. We live in a busy world – a world that is so occupied in keeping up with itself that it doesn’t have time to have meaningful conversation or time to get to know one another. I think about the times I have said, “How are you?” to people in passing knowing that they’ll say, “Fine, and how are you?” And I’ll say, “Fine, thanks.” But in actually, my day may have been absolutely awful. Yet, I fall back to the default response: “Fine.” Have you ever stopped to ask someone, “No really, how are you?” You may be surprised with what you will hear.
In truly listening to someone, we are saying “What you are saying is important to me” and in turn saying, “You are important to me.” Chaplains aren’t called to patients’ rooms to solve their problems, calm them down, or preach to them. We are called to their rooms to listen to them. If you truly listen and trust the patients, you will find that they will be able to discover their own answers to their problems. They will calm themselves down. They may even learn something about their relationship with God through the conversation. But they may not be able to do that without first being given the gift of listening.
So enjoy all the gifts you are given in your life and continue to offer your gifts to those around you. But remember to always take the time to offer others one of the most precious gifts in the world: the gift of listening.