Two psychiatrists met at their 20th college reunion. One was vibrant and enthusiastic. He looked younger than his years. The other appeared withered and fatigued and walked with the stoop of the aged. “So what’s your secret?” the tired-looking psychiatrist asked. “Listening to other people’s problems every day, all day long, for years on end, has made an old man of me.”
The younger-looking one replied, “Who listens?”
Unfortunately, that is too often a problem with the rest of us, isn’t it? Who listens? I mean, REALLY listens?
I received a letter from a woman who lives in New York. She explained that her 22-year-old electrician son Joe went to Manhattan a few days after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. He wanted to volunteer his time, but discovered that his skills were not needed.
But it turns out that Joe was able to help in a way he never anticipated. For on the train ride home, he sat across from a weary firefighter who was also traveling home from the scene of the disaster. The firefighter was covered in what appeared to be “ground zero” dirt and debris. Though Joe could see bits of rock in the man’s hair and noticed that his hands were bloody, what worried the young man most was the look in the firefighter’s eyes. They appeared lifeless and dull.
Then the man, apparently in shock, began to talk and Joe listened. Joe soon forgot his own disappointment about not being able to volunteer his skills that day as he listened to the gruesome story the firefighter related.
The man told about retrieving a shoe with a foot inside. Joe listened. He talked about cleaning debris from a face, then discovering that this person’s body was gone. Joe continued to listen without flinching. He did not react in disgust. He did not judge. He did not interrupt. He just listened.
He listened as the firefighter lamented about the carnage everywhere and about shoes…there were so many shoes, he said. Everywhere…shoes.
Through it all Joe quietly held the man’s attention and listened, which is exactly what the rescue worker needed at that moment. And because he listened, the man continued to speak. He talked his pain out, as much as possible. In the presence of a stranger, he tried to put his world back in order, to make sense of the day’s chaos. And Joe, for that time at least, helped him carry his unbelievably heavy burden.
That day Joe did not give blood, nor did he use his electrical skills to help with the relief effort. But he did one of the most important things a human can do for another. He gave a stunned and disheartened man his whole attention, and thereby, in a small but vital way, assisted in the work of setting the world right.
Mary Lou Casey says, “What people really need is a good listening-to.” It’s not always easy. And, at times, it may not be fun. In fact, listening closely to another often turns out to be difficult work. But day in and day out, attentive listening may be one of the most important and satisfying ways we can spend our time.
It’s true. What people really need is a good listening-to.