The Ministry of Listening

I miss Helen Atwood. Whether you know Helen or not doesn’t matter. I hope you’re blessed to know someone with her gift. Um … talent? Skill?

I should back up a bit.

I’ve been a bit angst-y lately. (Yes, I know that’s not a word.) A bit discouraged. Wondering about this writing thing. About ever getting published. About ever getting someone to even look at my work. All that. Now don’t get me wrong, I know all the right answers. I know them because I’m constantly telling everyone else all those right answers. I know I just have to keep writing, keep pitching, keep putting myself out there. As we said in our first KPC Writers Group challenge: Write what brings you joy, trusting God to use it for His glory.

Easier said than done.

Sometimes the truth that’s in your head has a hard time sinking into your heart. And discouragement follows. Am I really supposed to be doing this? Maybe I’m just supposed to encourage other writers and let myself off easy. But the thought of giving up hurts like a meat hook lodged in my chest.

So I misquote Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation … and go to the grave with their song still in them.” And I’m confident that’s not what I want for myself … a life of quiet desperation … going to the grave with my song still in me. (Though if you’ve ever heard me sing, you might prefer that I do.)

But back to Helen and one reason (there are many) I miss her.

Whenever this sweet woman asks how you’re doing … she truly wants to know. And for those moments when you have her attention, you feel as if you’re the only person in her world. You see, whether she’s learned this or she’s gifted with the ability, she knows how to listen. Really listen.

And I’ve needed someone like that lately. Please don’t get me wrong.  I have an amazing husband and wonderful friends and family who would patiently listen. They’d all encourage me–and they’d truly mean all those nice things. But it’s hard bucketing out all that torment to those who are closest to you. They worry. And they don’t know what to do to help.

How does someone really listen? Tim Keller, in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, says, “The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

I think he wrote that about Helen. She knows how to do that.

Not long ago, I was having one of “those days.” I met a writer friend for lunch. We talked about lots of things. And somewhere in the middle of it all, I cracked open a bit and squeaked out a little of my discouragement … then we went on to other things … and I left, carrying my anguish with me. And missing Helen.

Then I received an email from my friend. She felt she had failed me as a sister-writer, because she had rattled off a few words without waiting to listen long enough to see if that was what I truly needed to hear.  And then she said, “So let’s try this again … What I’d say to you, if we had more nachos (which I could totally go for right now) and more time together, is more like this … “ And then she wrote of hurting hearts and how life with a creative gift never gets easy … She reminded me of Elijah who curled up under a juniper tree and wanted to die—right after he had called down rain and outrun chariots. She reminded me of Moses who got his calling directly from God—and still believed he couldn’t do it.

And then she talked about the fire in our bones and how no matter how we try to shut our mouths (or still our pens?), it will roar louder and louder.  She talked about the panic and the terror … and the aches … oh, the aches … how the ache of “waiting” is a worthy ache … but the ache that is NOT born of waiting-in-hope but from fear that I won’t ever be satisfied, that I won’t be whole, that I’ll crave and suffer and long for no reason at all … well, that’s a devilish ache. It’s the voice that, “… tells you that you were crazy/foolish/wrong to ever think He’d choose you for this, that at this point the only thing to do is stick your writing desires in a suitcase under the bed. Go back to what is comfortable, what doesn’t gnaw on your soul, what you know you can do easily and well. Go now and you could mitigate the damage …”

There was more … all of it a balm to my soul. I came away refreshed, recharged. Yes, a lot of that had to do with the fact that she was totally on the money. She started off apologizing, and yet it was so obvious that she had listened beyond my words, and she cared enough to give a thoughtful response overflowing from her heart.

I knew I had been heard. And it meant everything.

Is it a gift, a talent, a learned skill … or maybe a fruit? I can learn a lot from Helen Atwood and my sister-writer.

So … how are you today?

I’m listening.


The Ministry of Listening — 7 Comments

  1. Glad to. 🙂 You have many gifts, Pat. I’m so glad you’re part of our Writers Group.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Lou. I always enjoy talking to you. You’re a pretty amazing guy. I’d love to share your comments with our Writers Group. I think they will all be encouraged–just as I am.

  3. You are so right, Evelyn, and thanks for the message.

    This can be applied to almost everyone. Almost all of us wish that we could be in a better place than we are now whether it is just our general circumstances, the point we have reached in our life; our family, job, lack of accomplishments in general; on and on. So it’s just not confined to writers, poets, artists, etc., looking for recognition.

    The first six months after I relocated here, I was severely depressed, although I never discussed this with anyone. I thought of my room as my prison cell and strongly wished I was dead.

    However, I finally began to make a few friends and just sitting down with them and listening to THEIR stories and THEIR anxieties made ME feel better; just as telling you a little bit of my story about some 60 years ago made me feel better.

    Most of us don’t realize that whether we talk to a friend about what we did 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, it’s all part of our story that we are adding to every minute of our lives. I finally realized this a few years ago after puzzling over a quotation I had read, part of which I have added to my signature on personal emails: “A man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others…” ~Jean-Paul Sartre.

    One of the worst blows to our heart is to have one of our children say, “Dad, I’ve heard that a million times,” often because they are so anxious to get back to telling their own story. And it’s too bad that we don’t sit down with our grandparents or other older relatives and encourage them to tell us their story. I’ve had more than a few people of my age say they wished they had asked their grandparents about their lives while they were still around.

    Well, I’m sure you didn’t expect such a long portion of My Story. Thanks for listening, Evelyn. Although I don’t see you very often or for very long I always enjoy being with you and I do think of you as my friend. I am blessed to know you.


  4. Seem to be living life on a bunge cord. God’s blessings have surrounded me and given me such comfort after so many years of turmoil. Then fear and wavering expectations choke my energy as I plunge to the depths of unfulfilled goals. My heart soars as the ascent encourages me knowing my sufficiency is in Christ alone. Keeping my eyes and heart on the project God has taken so many years to lay out before me requires me to Trust His Word. I don’t need to fit in someone’s preconceived mold. I am unique and God holds me close to His heart and is pleased with each step forward. He is waiting for me to swing gently, be even keeled, and bask in His peace. Come thy kingdom, be done thy will in my life and the creativity You have planned for me before the foundation of the world. Thank you, EW for listening!

  5. Laying bare your soul isn’t easy. But you did it with such grace and humility and honesty. And you sounded like so many of us would if we spoke out loud. There’s a teeming crowd of people saying “That’s me!” Thanks Ev! You CAN do this! You’re so good at it! I love this–and I love you.

  6. I still miss you, my friend! Friends since 7th grade is something to be celebrated! Thanks so much for your faithful support. You are so loved!

  7. Love this! Oh how I wish we lived closer so we could talk and listen to each other! (and eat nachos!)