By Neal Lemery
When life gets chaotic and painful, I try to simply take a breath and become a better listener. Most of us don’t feel like we are being heard, that our feelings and our own personal pain simply doesn’t matter, that we are insignificant.
Being the active listener, using our attention and our ears, changes the dynamics and gives importance and compassion to those who haven’t been heard, who feel ignored, unvalued. Our stories are powerful and liberating.
“We are made from the stories we’ve been told, the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell one another. The world can be terrifying, wonderful, repulsive, wounding, comforting — sometimes all at once. The stories we are fed often determine how we live in the contradiction.” —Mark Yakonelli, Between the Listening and the Telling—How Stories Can Save Us (2022).
Yakonelli is a professional listener, a collector of the deeply personal stories of others. A pastor and counselor, he helps others find their safe harbors and to share their lives. One of his tasks was to help Roseburg heal from the devastation of the Umpqua Community College shooting in 2015. His work was to simply help create a safe place for people to share their pain, and to tell of their own courage and love of their community. He gave permission and sacred space for people to tell their stories, to express their innermost values and character. He helped heal a suffering community.
His book speaks of his own journey in gathering the stories of others and how that telling has changed himself and the communities he has visited. He continues to work with groups and individuals throughout the world, helping them to find their voices and to open their hearts.
“Stories can expand the boundaries of the heart to hold the chaos, the betrayals, the destructive absurdities with a sense of grace, resiliency, and moral courage. Or they can shrink us to become brittle, fearful, destructive. We need a comforting space and compassionate ears to sort out what we have suffered, to find the stories that recover and repair the world, to keep our hearts intact,” he wrote.
In these times, I can often feel isolated. In spite of technology, I can easily feel lonely, disconnected from others. I can feel ignored. By sharing our stories, and by the simple act of telling my own story, bridges are built and connections with humanity and with community are made. We crave the good stories, the ones that reach into our hearts with a deep message of love and compassion, spreading empathy and good will.
There are many good listeners among us, the people who welcome us to share what is in our hearts, and to work on healing our pain. The Irish have a word for the people who do this work, seanachie, the story catchers.
As we go about our lives, and do the healing work that needs to be done in this world, we should pause and reflect on the healing power of story in the world, and the power that each of us has to be both the teller of stories and the listener.