What Difference Listening Makes

Summer Storm by Ryan Opaz at Flickr

A Summer Storm

We had arrived at the apartment complex just ahead of a summer storm, complete with threatening sky, swirling winds, and an electric charge in the air. With hot wind and the beginnings of lightning at our backs, we were greeted at the ground floor door by a woman with an oxygen tank in tow.

“St. Vincent de Paul Society?” she asked. We, that is, myself and a fellow member of the young adult group that conducts these visits, nodded in response. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, “I thought you might not come because of the storm.”

We made our way upstairs to her apartment, closing doors against the winds and heat. “I won’t take too much of your time. I don’t want you to get caught in the storm.” And she began.

She told us her story. Like so many people who struggle to make ends meet, it was a story of discouragement and doubt, of setbacks and the struggle to catch up. We sat, and we listened, until the she had spoken enough.  Then the young woman doing the home visit with me said just the right thing in just the right way. “It sounds like you’re discouraged,” she said.  And she was.

With tears in her eyes, she told us of the frustrations of a cascade of problems, the ruthless domino effect so often experienced by the most vulnerable. One misfortune and she spends weeks playing catch-up on one bill, and then another, and then another. She talked about the discouragement of being judged, about dealing with the assumption that she’s lazy or unmotivated. And she talked of love. Her eyes shone, and her shoulders lifted as she talked about her loved ones.  Then they overflowed as she spoke of her hopes, her desires for her family.

By the time we left, the fickle gusts of those late summer cloudbursts had passed. As we walked away it struck me how little we had done. We had promised as much as our group could, a voucher to help with food; prayers. We had held hands as we prayed. And we had listened.

I don’t know what difference it made that we listened. As her story came tumbling out, it occurred to me that it must be… very painful to have so much need and no one to whom to tell her story. No one to listen and acknowledge that her perfectly ordinary story of struggle and doubt, of joy and love was worth listening to. No one to say that her concerns about money, her future, her desire for the best for the ones she loved is the stuff of a sacred story. No one to say that it matters profoundly.

I don’t know what difference it made that we listened. The most I could give, the most we could give, was to sit for 45 minutes with open hands and open heart.

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