This week I’m reflecting on the liberating power of listening. Special thanks to Roger and Rebecca Sandberg for their incredible hospitality and beautiful practice of listening.
Yours with gratitude,
Last Wednesday, I sat on a beautiful beach and experienced a vital truth: The listener is a liberator.
The Pacific Ocean was a deep aqua green. The sun was drenching everything in its golden light. The waves were crashing into foamy fireworks of white and blue. Surfers were riding the waves, and small children were blissfully playing in the sand. The salty smell of the ocean air filled my lunges, and the refreshing wind blew across my face. The surging, crackling roar of the tide filled my ears with its awe-inspiring music. Not far off the coast, a 235-foot volcanic rock towered above the pounding ocean, magnificently unmoved in the restless water.
It was paradise. Everything was beautiful. It was exactly what I hoped for when my friends invited me to come out for a time of fellowship and renewal in nature.
There was only one problem. My soul was as restless as the waves, and I felt detached from all of it. My mind was scattered, and my body wouldn’t stop moving. I set up my chair on the beach. Then I walked back to the parking lot to move the car to another spot. Then I moved my chair a little closer to the water. Then I opened a book and started planning to hike the sand dunes. It was ridiculous.
I had intentionally come to this beach to sit, listen, and be present. I was seeking rest and renewal before an important new season. But my insides were spinning with anxiety, and I thought about simply leaving.
Then Lily called me on WhatsApp – 8,500 miles away and ten hours later in Ethiopia.
She asked me how the day before had gone, and I told her it was wonderful. My dear friends had taken amazing care of me, and I had time to write a few more prayers in response to places of traumatic loss and grief in my life. I was making progress on important work.
Lily listened, and I started telling her about my frustration with being so restless and anxious in such a beautiful place. She said it was okay to feel that way and kept listening. I then told her about the prayer of grief I had written focused on the night my mother suffered her stroke almost six years ago, which radically changed her life.
Almost immediately, I found myself taking long pauses as I struggled to speak. My voice choked as grief rose up within me. Lily didn’t fill the silence but kept listening. We then walked slowly through our memories of that devastating night: my dad’s phone call, our drive to the hospital, seeing mom in the stretcher, switching hospitals, waiting an eternity for her to come out of surgery, sitting up all night next to her bed as machines beeped and I looked for signs of consciousness.
Suddenly I began to understand my anxiety, which had made the beauty all around me so distant and meaningless.
When I faced my mother’s near death the day before and, with it, the fear of losing her in the future, I had opened a deep well of grief that I had only dipped my feet in. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes in On Grief and Grieving, “What is left ungrieved remains stored in the body, heart, and soul. It can come out each time we experience loss anew.” I thought I could remember the event, write a prayer, and move on with it neatly tucked away. But I had started work that wasn’t finished, and it refused to be reburied.
With Lily’s listening, I could see that my anxiety was really a subconscious distraction to prevent myself from paying attention and returning to that frightening place of painful grief. As long as my mind was racing and my body was moving, I wouldn’t have to face it. The psychiatrist Curt Thomson writes, “[The mind] often conspires to hide the truth (the depth of our emotion, memory, and relational patterns, as well as the reality of a God who loves us beyond belief) from ourselves and others.”
But my nagging anxiety was also a clue that this was exactly what I needed to do: open my soul, explore what was disturbing me, and release it. It was only when Lily asked me why I was anxious and listened with incredible patience that I was able to understand my own experience. Something broke open inside of me, and I had the capacity to return to a place of pain and work afresh on releasing my grief.
What I experienced in that moment was as powerful and profound as the ocean: the listener is the liberator. Listening may appear like a form of passivity that requires little and achieves less. But listening is a vital activity that requires incredible patience and promises healing in its time. Listening opens a space of freedom for the other who is allowed to speak and discover what is inside, no longer alone, and face what is troubling them with honesty and insight.
This truth returns again and again. What is inside must come out. Intangible realities stored within need to be externalized in words, tears, and shared presence. Lily offered me the stability of her presence and the care of her ears without needing to fill the silence or fix what I was feeling. And I was liberated.
This is an essential aspect of the mystery of being human: another may give us nothing but their presence, and this may be the most precious gift that sets us free. Moreover, they may be invisible and present only by their listening, and yet they are more powerful and soothing than an ocean. Their apparent weakness is strength, and they give us the strength to return to our weakness, which opens the pathway to peace and healing.
Dr. Curt Thompson has come to a similar conclusion through his fascinating study of neuroscience and spiritual practice entitled Anatomy of the Soul:
“[A]n important part of how people change – not just their experiences, but also their brains – is through the process of telling their stories to an empathetic listener. When a person tells her story and is truly heard and understood, both she and the listener undergo actual changes in their circuitry. They feel a greater sense of emotional and relational connection, decreased anxiety, and greater awareness of and compassion for others’ suffering.” (xiv)
After speaking with Lily, the wall of my anxiety was demolished. I was able to see the water, hear the waves, feel the sun, and be deeply present in that magnificent place. Peace and rest filled my soul.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called God “the Great Listener” and claimed that “the death of the spiritual life” begins when we stop listening to others. In his classic description of community entitled Life Together, Bonhoeffer warns that “Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either.” What is needed is “listening long and patiently.”
Perhaps most challenging to our fast-paced, efficiency-driven society, Bonhoeffer writes, “Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own plans” (3:98).
It’s worth asking: What are the nagging anxieties in my life that can only be unlocked through another’s listening? And with whom am I sharing the work of liberation by “listening long and patiently” to their confessions? (And have I earned the trust to be spoken to through unrelenting love and confidentiality?)
The listener is a liberator.