(Originally printed as "Listening," reprinted with permission from the blog "East of Eagle River.")
Gave away my ears the other day. It was to a friend. No, he had two of his own, so it wasn’t like a transplant. Anyway, while I was doing that I also pretty much zipped shut my mouth. Mostly I just sat there and listened to him.
I do that periodically. It’s called being a friend. Bending an honest, generous ear to a friend in need almost defines friendship.
This pal of mine needed to talk, to lift a few heavy thoughts off his mind. But more importantly, he also needed to be heard. Those problems gnawing at him were rooted in his heart. Doesn’t too much matter what they were. This I do know: they were important to him. In a sense, they were a kind of story – his story – and he needed to have it validated, to know that it was valued and important because it was being heard.
You see, he wasn’t asking for advice. He just needed to ease those problems by rubbing the balm of another human being’s attention on them.
Being chosen for that chore is probably one of the highest compliments anyone can bestow on a friend. In effect, it says that person trusts you, values your silent attention and respectful confidence.
Those of you who’ve had the experience as either the giver or receiver know the reward.
Thing is there aren’t that many good ear-lenders around. It takes a certain quality to be a good listener. The point is that although we all hear, too few of us truly listen. Hearing is an act of the body; listening is an act of the heart.
We have all these high-tech, newfangled hearing aids but they just don’t make listening aides.
Being a good listener is a true gift, one that we share just by lending an ear to a friend. But in lending that gift to a friend, you also give a gift to yourself.
There’s this other thing about listening that I’ve come to understand. It’s embodied in an old story out of the Depression era – not unlike the job-shortage situation we’re facing today.
As the story goes, a room is filled with applicants for a job opening as a telegraph operator. A steady, humming flow of dots and dashes filled the room but it was competing with an even heavier drone of conversation.
At one point the door opened and in walked another applicant for the job. He stood there a minute, walked over to a door marked “Office” and knocked. A man opened it and said to everyone: “Okay, you can all leave, we have our applicant.”
Understandably, all the others were furious and demanded an explanation. The man gave it to them with one word – “LISTEN!” When the room fell silent what they finally heard in those dots and dashes repeated over and over was this message: “If you hear this, knock on the door; the job is yours.”
I think that’s what being a good listener is all about: rising above the din of noise and listening close with mind and heart.
One thing for sure: that will always get you the rewarding job of helping a good friend in need.
Essayist George Berdes spends part of the year in Milwaukee and the warmer months in the Northwoods. Many of his essays originally ran in a weekly series on WXPR in Rhinelander, and now appear at his blog, "East of Eagle River."