Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Healing Power of Listening

Doctors and clergy both have patients and parishioner whose complaints are "loneliness related". We each have our standard nostrums for dealing with such problems, most of which are temporary. There is something far more powerful than, "just pray about it" or a mood-altering medication, but it takes time and intentional effort. You do not have to be a doctor or clergy person to use this method of treating loneliness and other emotional and spiritual related complaints. It can be done by anyone who cares enough to just listen.

In her novel, "At Home in Mitford", Jan Karon has many insightful stories about the ministry of Father Tim, the single Episcopal priest in Mitford. This is one of them.

Father Tim had gotten up early that morning. He was feeling the confusion of too many options in his personal life as well as the pressure of the ongoing work in his church. When he arrived at his office early that morning, Uncle Billy was sitting on the front steps of the church office wearing his deceased brother-in-law's finest three piece suit, and smelling strongly of mothballs. After they exchanged the traditional niceties that usually take place between a minister and some congregant who "just happened" to be on the steps of the church office early in the morning, Father Tim insisted that Uncle Billy come in. Uncle Billy talked about several inconsequential things in his life, but the priest sensed that was not why he was there. After a while Father Tim switched on the answering machine and said: "Why don't you just tell me what is on your mind?". Uncle Billy poured out a long convoluted story, the details of which are unimportant, except that they were very important to Uncle Billy.

The wise priest-counselor punctuated the conversation with just enough questions and comments to get the whole story on he table, so to speak. When he had finished Uncle Billy said to the priest that he would not like any of this story to "git out and about town", to which Father Tim replied, "Nobody will hear it from me." With this Uncle Billy stood up, grinned and said, "Well preacher, you've sure took a whole load off my mind, and that's a fact. I've been wrestling with this for a good while and I'm just gonna set it down in the road and leave it." With that and a brief prayer, the visit which was never thought to be a counseling session was over.

The priest wondered what he had said that had helped Uncle Billy to come to this conclusion. The fact is that he had done nothing more than just listen. Then Father Tim settled down to work on his sermon. Oddly enough, this meeting with Uncle Billy had given him just the insight he needed on a certain difficult point in the sermon.

It is strange how we seldom help somebody else without ourselves being helped in the process. There is an indescribable alchemy that takes place where there is non-judgmental listening. Think about that next time you sense that someone needs you to just listen.