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Soul Searching

Tom Saretsky


In listening to the other, we provide a home for them

What does it mean to provide a home for the homeless? Other than providing a physical shelter for someone else, could you provide shelter for a person who needs to tell you their story? A home of the listening sort for the homeless? Some find it easier to open the doors of their homes than the doors of their hearts. Where do you fit? 

Like my own father, my father-in-law, Art, was a tremendous listener. It’s one of the things I most loved about him, and one of the reasons I miss him so much. He patiently listened to my stories of struggle and of joy, and without comment or suggestion, allowed me to talk uninterrupted. He mastered the art of listening.

To give of yourself demands a great deal of attention and effort so that others may give of themselves. The early 20th century writer Miles Franklin once wrote, “Someone ‘to tell it to,’ is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.”

Everyone needs the basic necessities of food, physical shelter, and clothing. However, the emotional necessities of life are just as important and need to be met through our listening, through our attention, and in our companionship to our friends, our families, and even those we may not know well.

A few months ago my wife, Norma, underwent gum-grafting surgery. I’ve had the same surgery in the past, so I knew how unpleasant it felt. Initially after the surgery the patient has to keep their mouth closed so as not to irritate the wounds or hinder the healing process. The surgery practically renders one mute for the first few days.

During Norma’s period of recovery I took advantage of her condition to vent my frustrations regarding some rather unpleasant incidents a few weeks before. I was holding onto my anger and agitation and needed to unload. Since Norma was incapable of providing a response, she had no choice but to listen to my story.

In precise detail, I explained how I was going to handle the situation and what I was going to say to the perpetrator of my discontent. I was in fine form, getting more and more empowered by my passion, and I’m sure Norma must have felt like the proverbial lamb in Isaiah: “As a sheep before its shearers is silent, so (she) did not open (her) mouth.” In going through my plan, rehearsing my script and unburdening myself of frustration, I entrusted Norma with a sacred piece of my life. I said no more.

After a few days had passed, Norma and I sat down to re-visit our conversation. By this time, Norma had healed sufficiently enough to respond. I didn’t come back to my story to add anything further, to defend my position, or to apologize for how I felt; instead, I used the opportunity to express my profound gratitude to Norma for simply listening to me. I told her that after sharing my story, a peace enveloped me that I never would have expected. Norma did mention that there were many things she had wanted to say; however, she didn’t. She couldn’t. Her listening, her silence, was the key to my healing.

The ensuing days after my venting session allowed me to process what I shared. I was able to see and think with greater clarity. My anger was replaced with peace, and my frustration was replaced with calm. No longer was I seeking to transmit the hurt I had received. Instead, through my sharing and through Norma’s listening, I was transformed, and in that transformation I was receptive to new life — a new life of heart, spirit and attitude.

Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, once wrote, “Our listening creates a sanctuary for the homeless parts of another person.” Our angers and our frustrations, our hurts and our jealousies can render us homeless. To have someone truly focus and listen, without the need to interrupt or to give advice, gives us the security and shelter we seek; yet, that can be difficult for the listener. There’s a propensity in us to want to fix, to advise, to comment, to defend, to justify and even to console.

“It takes two years to learn to talk, but 50 to master silence,” writes Ernest Hemingway. To “sit up and shut up” and listen to a voice other than our own takes a great deal of self-restraint. That day, Norma’s listening gave me a greater, and even stronger sense of home and comfort.

For someone to tell you they trust you with their problems and with their struggles is to be paid one of life’s highest compliments. When someone trusts you, they are entrusting you with a sacred piece of their life. Your responsibility is to guard their heart and treat them with care, with gentleness, with honour, and with respect, which is accomplished through listening.

If you can go through life and someone, even one person, can say they found a home in you, then you will have lived a fulfilling life, regardless of how much money you make, how much popularity you have and how much attention you generate. Popularity, attention and money are fleeting, but providing a safe place for someone, when the storms in their life rage, will stay with you and with them forever.

In the words of Emily Dickinson, “I felt it shelter to speak to you.” May you find a home in these words so that others might find a home in you.

Saretsky is a teacher and chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Norma, have two children, Nathan and Jenna.