In my book, More Questions than Answers, Sharing Faith by Listening, I have tried to illustrate the value that we demonstrate in our relationships with one another by offering the gift of listening. I found this to be true from personal experience.
I have always been fascinated by psychology that helps me learn something about why people do the things they do. As a woman, I have discovered the power of enabling problems to assume their proper proportions by sharing them with my friends. As a result, it has always made sense to me to talk about how we feel about the experiences that life brings our way and why. I know that at stake is more than just giving expression to how I am feeling, but being able to hear and understand my own verbal explanations of reality in the light of a larger context.
Let me give you some concrete examples. After we had been married for over twenty-five years my heart came to understand what my mind knew was true through the intervention in our lives of a good counsellor. There was no doubt that my husband, Glen truly loved me. But, there were many barriers between that reality and my perception of it. Encumbrances included the problem Glen had with anger management, and my perception that I was responsible for his emotional well-being. It was as we together visited a counsellor, who helped us to be able to express our deepest feelings to ourselves and to each other, that we discovered that there were ways that we could help each other deal with these problems and be freed to explore the underlying realities. The most significant discovery for me was that Glen and I both wanted to remove these encumbrances. In being enabled to do so, my heart came to truly understand how much he loved me. What a gift that was!
A result of this counselling was the development of skills that Glen learned to enable him to manage his anger and the freedom from a self-imposed responsibility for his emotions that helped me to learn how much he loved me. These discoveries rekindled and strengthened my love for him and our relationship moved to a never before imaged depth.
Little did we both know how important this development was going to be a few years later, when a new challenge was thrust upon our family. In 2003, our son, John became a quadriplegic as a result of a motor accident when the vehicle, he was driving hit black ice. We were plunged into a sorrow we never could have imagined. The grief was too profound for us to be able to talk to each other about it, so there it sat at the centre of our lives. We were forced to skirt around it fearful of its power to destroy the strong relationship we had been able create together.
As humans, when listen to the affliction of another we are offering them an invitation to help carry their grief. It is one of those unwritten human laws that we all understand. Our own emotional well-being complicates the situation. When we are in a reasonably healthy state this can happen and good can come for both the person bending under the load of grief and the friend who comes alongside to help bear that burden. When we are in a place where we risk being submerged under the weight of our own grief, we find it impossible to invite on board the raw pain of another. This is where another kind of counselling can prove so life-giving, as was the case for us. Together we visited a grief counsellor.
When we came into the office of the counsellor, he would ask Glen, “How are you doing on your grief journey? Where are you?” Glen could tell him how he was feeling about what had happened, knowing that the counsellor was able to bear the weight of his agony. Not being obliged to take on that responsibility, I was free to listen to the conversation with empathy for Glen, but know that my listening did not require me to take the weight of his grief on my own laden shoulders.
Then it would be my turn. The counsellor would turn to me and ask, “How are you doing with this?” I could express my feelings and reflections about it all, without any threat to Glen and his emotional stability. We both knew that it was the counsellor who by his listening was offering to help me to carry the load. From our conversation, Glen could glean whatever he needed to know about what was happening in my life and know it was not up to him to fix it.
The freedom to think about and express our feelings about what had happened to us without creating a crushing load for each other, helped us to be able to struggle with the burden of grief individually with the help of the counsellor until it assumed proportions that we were then able to handle. Then we were able to talk to each other about how we felt and instead of our grief becoming a powerful force that could rip us apart it became a challenge that together, we were able to confront and learn new ways of coping, thereby growing in our understanding and appreciation for the strength to be found in each other.