The First Duty of Love
The first duty of love is to listen.
The fancy word for what we are called is counselors. But really, truly, we believe that mainly we are listeners. To be honest, there have been many meetings we’ve had with others in which we didn’t have a whole lot of answers or much wisdom or counsel to offer. There have been times when we have left those meetings feeling as if we have contributed very little, not been giving anything of much value. But so often, to our surprise, we will hear later from those people that we gave them just “what they needed”, that we “helped them so much” that we offered the right encouragement and guidance.
And all we did was listen.
But listening is really just what everyone needs. It is easy for all of us to come up with “easy” answers, sound bite wisdom or quick advice to fix a problem and find solutioons. But more times than not, what people need and crave the most is someone who will simply be present with them, someone who as Henri Nouwen has written:
When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
We both can recall the many instances in which we’ve been with people who are in grief, who have just lost someone they love. So often, we hear their friends come to visit and try to be supportive, but end up doing more harm than good because they say too much. People have even asked many times:
What should I say to people who are going through a very rough time?
Our response is simple and consistent. It is far better to say little than to say too much. Essentially, all they need to say is this:
And all they need to do is be present. Just be there to walk with others through their darkness, through their pain. That is the most important and meaningful thing any of us can – and need to – do.
I, Tom, remember receiving a phone call one night at 4:00a.m. The father of two teenagers in our youth group had suddenly died. He was only in his early 50’s. When I arrived at their house his two teenage children greeted me at the door in devastation and tears. They invited me in and for the next eight hours I simply sat with them, in their living room, listening to their memories, their stories and their pain. I can’t remember much of what I said. But I know that I didn’t say much. I didn’t need to. It would not have helped, nor would they have remembered most of my words. They simply needed me to listen and to be present with them in their anquish and grief. That act of love – which is what listening is, that presence – is something they will never forget.
I, Michael, spent months and months in the living room of a family that was broken apart. Anger, resentment, disapproval and bitterness was crushing them all. They invited me in to listen to their brokenness, to help make some sense of their shattered selves, as years of pain came pouring out. It was raw. Some of it was hard to hear. But all of it needed to come out. I, too, don’t remember saying much during those times, during those hours when their brokeness was starkly revealed. But I didn’t need to. I just needed to listen. I just needed to be present as they told their stories. I just needed to be with them, accompanying them toward their journey where healing could be found. You saved our family, is the refrain I’ve heard from the mother and wife. You saved our family.
That’s what the act of listening can. do. Through our presence, our gift of patient love, our gift of silence, really, shattered lives, families and relationships can begin to be healed. The broken pieces can be begin to be put back together again.
We encourage you to open yourself to be listened to and to listen to those who need to share. To be that quiet presence for those around you. To offer that gracious, generous gift of love.