Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Gift of Listening

I just completed two weeks of travel with my father’s WWII POW exhibit. The exhibit is designed to honor my father, of course, but it is also designed to encourage those who attend to remember to thank veterans and service people whenever they have the opportunity. The exhibit also encourages people to tell their own stories. Every person has a story to tell. Certainly, some stories are more dramatic than others, but every person has unique experiences in life that can be very interesting and informative.

At every exhibit I took the time to ask the veterans who attended about their own stories. Often, the response was, “no one is interested in my story” or “no one cares.” I was stunned at how common this response was. When I pressed them a little, almost all of them began to tell me a little of their story. And within seconds, almost every one of them began to cry. Their lips would quiver and their eyes would well up with tears. I was amazed. Very quickly it became clear that people are very touched when someone takes the time to listen. I did not have hours. In most cases I did not have much time at all, but each time I had the opportunity I took a few minutes to listen. It is astounding what people will tell us in just a few minutes if we listen.

Part of their openness to telling their stories, of course, was that some of them had just heard me tell mine. And part of their emotion was that many of these were men who had served in time of war and experienced significant threats to their lives and the loss of comrades and friends. Vietnam vets in particular were emotional about their experiences. The war was such a divisive one in this country and the first to be played out on television on a daily basis. These vets came home not to parades and heroes welcomes, but to derision, criticism, and outright scorn. When I thanked these veterans, they all commented on how infrequently they had heard this.

Politics and wars aside, this experience reinforced for me the deep significance of listening. It is a gift. It is a gift to the one who is heard and to the one who listens. We live in an activity-crazed, frenetically paced time. We simply do not have much time to stop and listen to each other. When we do, people are surprised, and if we really listen, they are nurtured by the attention. But listening is also a gift to the one who hears. Each time I heard a story and looked into the eyes and soul of another human being and heard their story, I felt somehow that I was on sacred ground. Each time I learned something that I did not know before and each time I encountered some part of the image of God.

When my children were little I remember them telling me something and I would respond with a “uh-huh “ or “okay.” Intuitively (and by my body language) they knew that I was not really listening. More than once my children called me on this. They would say, “Mommy, you are not really listening.” They were right. I wasn’t really listening. I was distracted and attending to something else. My recent road trip to do my father’s exhibit has renewed in me a desire to really listen to people. Listening is a gift. And it is a gift that I can give.

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