It was nine days after my heart transplant, and my first restaurant meal since the surgery. There I sat at the Chinese buffet. I had a new heart beating within me from a young person who had died one foggy night in November. I was in a state of wonder. I marveled at the newness and freedom of life. I no longer had strapped to my body the powerful milrinone solution that had been infused continually into my heart, keeping me alive for the previous four months. I felt liberated and grateful.
I also wondered at the people around me, taking their seats, going to and from the food trays, talking to one another, looking right past me. Right through me. Didn’t they know? Why didn’t they marvel that I was there? I wanted to tap people on the shoulder and tell them what had just happened to me. Why couldn’t they see?
As I sat there with my wife, eating my noodles and sesame chicken, I was amazed at how little we know of those about us. Just as they had no idea of my recent experience—the years of waiting, the dozens of tests and consultations at Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, the week in intensive care months before the transplant, the days of recovery—so I had no idea of the lives, joys, heartaches, and dreams of the diners and servers about me. Just as I felt unnoticed and unknown, so must have some—perhaps many—of them.
One of the lessons I have been learning during the six years since my transplant is that no one can fully understand what I am thinking and experiencing. No one on earth truly knows me, yet I long to be known. I’ve had to—very reluctantly—let go of my need/desire to be understood deeply. It has become enough for me to know that some people truly care and try to comprehend my situation, my pain, suffering, psychological struggles, medication side effects, and chronic transplant rejection. I have been helped greatly in learning this lesson by the realization that I don’t/can’t know others as they want to be known. I can try to see through their eyes, enter into their thoughts, fears, sufferings and motives, yet I understand them at best only partially.
Another realization that has gripped me strongly in recent years is that—apart from the truths of God—the most important non-material thing I can give to any person is my full, concentrated attention and concern. To look at and listen to a person with our whole self, trying our best to understand his or her words, mind and heart, is a rare and priceless gift. When you are on the receiving end of this gift, and you sense that it is genuine, you are strengthened and encouraged in a way that cannot be explained, even if the person is not able to help you in any other way. And when you are on the giving end (probably listening ninety percent of the time) you may very well be the representative of God to someone desperately needing to be understood.
Psychologist Paul Tournier, in his book, To Understand Each Other, writes:
"It is impossible to overemphasize the immense need [people] have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood. No one can develop freely in this world and find full life without feeling understood by at least one person."
You and I are not able to be that one person for everyone we know, but we can be for someone, for two or for several. You may have no idea what a gift—what an encouragement to go on—you can be if you become an active, sincere listener, without letting your eyes and mind wander, without hazing over, and without interjecting your experiences and perspectives until (if ever) you sense that the person is ready for them. This whole matter of trying to understand others in such a way that validates them is tough work—sometimes really tough work. And we need to trust God for the who, where, when, why, and how long. And don’t forget the children—they sense immediately which adults really care.
Two days ago I was sitting with my wife in a medical clinic, and across from us sat a man and his wife. On the other side of the man was an elderly woman whom I believe had not known the couple previously. She had infinite patience, it seemed. She listened and listened and listened as the man talked and talked and talked. She bent toward him the whole time in an uncomfortable position, nodding her head occasionally as he glanced toward her from time to time to check if she was still listening. I averted my eyes, trying to read my book. But I could hear him. Looking straight forward, with a very pleased smile on his face, he spoke smoothly, without allowing any interruptions, moving from Iwo Jima, Swedish meatballs, church matters, Pearl Harbor and everything else that came to his mind by free association. Finally Judy was called in to her eye check-up and I immediately moved to the far corner of the (fortunately large) waiting room.
I give this account simply to illustrate when we do not need to be active listeners. If the person likes to talk just to hear himself or herself speaking, I try to slip away as quickly as possible. I don’t like feeling trapped. But if the person is open, as is often evident in his or her eyes or voice, and is truly looking to be understood (and thereby helped from some comments you may make), and I sense from the circumstances and the Spirit’s inner nudging that I should talk with the person, I do. Often it is not the quantity of time you give, but the quality.
“Now I know [God and others] in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).