The Slow Work of Story Listening

I’ve long held to the belief that we all have a story that’s waiting, sometimes needing, to be told. Our story comes forth in bits and pieces, fragments of paragraph and run-on sentence. It is being written on the landscape of our days and recorded in the memory of our conscious experience; yet, increasingly, it seldom emerges in full form.

In the rush and hurry of today’s way of living, it’s rare that one gets to know a full chapter, let alone the greater book. We live in a world of tweets and posts, and video sound bites that have all but reduced our ability to listen and focus for any length of duration. (For example, you may be wondering, by now, if you even have time to invest in the remainder of this article!)It’s a sad state of affairs. It has pushed the art of storytelling, and its companion discipline of reflection, to the margins. But, should you choose to take a trip there, you will find in those marginal spaces of public life persons who have much to say, a story to share, if someone would just stop and listen.

Such was my experience again this week as I called upon a gentle soul in a public place. He was the center of attention due to some physical challenges that had brought him to that place. But was anyone listening to him?

They were bustling about him, like bees around spilled soda pop, but seldom pausing long enough to make eye contact, let alone ply their ears to his words. There were charts to check, readings to note, data to log. He watched, wide-eyed and perhaps a bit bemused, as they flit and darted here and there.

Questions were asked; short, crisp questions. Questions that left him a bit tongue-tied, trying to overcome a speech difficulty only made worse by hurry. In the end, they did not wait for the answers – could not invest long enough to tease them out.

Then, finally, mercifully, they left. They left and it was just he and I. I pulled up a chair, squared him up eye to eye, and asked how he was doing. Then I waited.

Slowly, deliberately, but with conviction he made his reply. “Much better than yesterday.” We reviewed what yesterday had brought his way: illness, distress, the need for assistance – and fear. Fear that it might well be his last day, his death. In fact, he’d been quite sure that it was, until just a few hours earlier, when he began to feel better.

In the face of that admission I wanted to know more. More of what he feared, yes; but I also wanted to know more of him, and more of his story. Who was he? Who had he been? Where had he gone? What lives had he touched?

Oh, I had a name, and even a few facts. There was a thumbnail sketch of this man in my mind, but just that. Sitting with him revealed more lay below the surface – much more. So, I began to ask. I asked for his story. I gave him an opportunity to tell me who he was, where he had been, and how he came to be, through many years, at this point and time. And I waited.

It never ceases to amaze me that when you offer a person the opportunity to tell their story, they most often will. Be patient, wait and listen with interest and, it comes trickling forth. The longer it has been pent up, the more force with which it may finally be released. Imagine a mountain stream in the spring melt of the year ushering forth last winter’s snow and ice, now in liquid form. Were you to sit and watch in the time lapse of a warm spell you could trace the change in the stream’s volume. I sit and listen with patience and a similar effect unfolds.

We covered many years, locations, and chapters during my visit. It was something of a “life review”. The blanks in my thumbnail sketch took on new detail as the story was told. I came to a new appreciation of this man, his life and story.

“I’m surprised you had this much time to sit and talk with us.” The words came from his wife, who had been attentive to our sharing. Her words follow me down the hall as I leave. They follow me through my afternoon and into the next day. I’d heard them before, but they still stop me cold.

In the end, time may well be the biggest gift, and best medicine, we can offer another. Time coupled with a few good open ended questions, sure to unleash the stream that’s been pent up behind the dam of a life in a rush and hurry world.

When’s the last time you took the time to hear someone’s full story?

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you out to answer everyone. – Colossians 4:6 NRSV

Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak . . . – James 1:19 NRSV


Filed under Ministry, Pastors, Spiritual Formation

3 responses to “The Slow Work of Story Listening

  1. Susan Marlow

    It wasn’t a question of having time to read your article for me. As soon as I saw it on Facebook the TV went off and I settled in for a good read. You never disappoint.

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