A listening heart for a suffering world

MY wife sometimes complains that I am too available, giving attention to almost anybody who wants me even those she deems obnoxious, toxic and discourteous. “All they know is ask you to do favors for them,” she carped one day after I took one lengthy call after another.

Is my wife right about me, that I am too available?

As a creative gig writer, of course I need to be available. I get invited to be part of speculative projects. These take much of my time in terms of interminable meetings and frequent phone discussions. Many times, the projects don’t pan out. Sometimes, I don’t get paid on time. When I do get paid, it’s not enough. But still I take calls from the same people, hoping the next project will be better.

But then, it’s not all about money. Some of the calls might have to do with exploring a prospective project and then in the middle begins to veer into personal woes. I get to play the role of a pseudo counselor and a few times a father confessor. People just seem to be comfortable baring their hearts to me.

I endure these calls because deep inside I care for people. Everybody needs someone to listen to him or her. Whether I like it or not, it’s in my nature. I have a listening heart.

By nature, I am a listener. I hesitate to talk and make an effort to be inconspicuous in a meeting or in a seminar. That’s because I am inarticulate. I don’t think on my feet. I am a slow thinker and need time to mull over things in my mind. To avoid making a fool of myself, I just listen unless I am asked to comment. I seldom go to social functions because I am not a witty conversationalist. I am not good at crafting bon mots or making jokes. But I am good at listening.

When I was working in the corporate world, people saw me as too soft and pliant. They said I didn’t know how to berate or reprimand subordinates; that was tolerant of failures.

It is simply because I have a different approach to dealing with people. I don’t like bossing people around. I am more of the coach or mentor type, allowing individuals to grow, not stunt them or steer them toward my own way. Rather than raise my voice, I raise my empathy quotient. It turns out there is always a backstory why they behave that way. I listen and at the end I point out their weaknesses and urge them to do better. Many times it works because the striving to be better comes from within them.

Listening and being available is what the world needs right now. Day in and day out, I read messages like these, which break my heart: “My dad died last night from Covid-19.” “ My best friend died this morning of Covid. He had to take care of his dad who died two days ago. Hirap i-process ang feelings mag-isa.”  So many hearts are getting hurt or feeling the pain. And many more are still going to feel the pain before this long night is going to be over.

Offering a listening heart may sometimes be all you can give or do. You may not be able to heal their ailment, or alleviate their grief over a loss, or help them out of their money trouble. But you can make your presence felt physically or virtually, to comfort them however slightly and temporarily. And though this may seem like a small or inconsequential action you can offer, it can mean a great deal to the other.

It’s called “silent availability.” That’s a good phrase I stumbled upon recently. In the words of the late Dutch theologian and pastor Henri J.M. Nouwen, a true friend is someone “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…instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”

This does not mean that we should not do other things to assist people in their situations, from offering food to clothes or even donating money.

I must confess that there are times I feel used or my time is being wasted. I too have made myself “unavailable.” Sometimes I want to say, simply, “Not today, please; call me some other day.” There are times when I feel too stressed or emotionally drained to listen truly. It’s almost like that one scene in the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar when he found himself overwhelmed and stressed by so many sick people crying out to him, demanding attention.

But then I think of all the spiritually wounded people who are thirsting for the caring presence of other people.

The mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg defined the attitude of having a listening heart this way: “How should one live? Live welcoming to all.”

As a Buddhist sage once said: Who is available to you? To whom are you available? These to me should be the measures of a life that is meaningfully lived, a life that is more accepting and less judging.


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