Listening is the greatest gift we can give to a troubled soul

December 14, 2002
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Published in The Times, 14th December 2002

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Viktor Frankl survived three years in the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz. On the basis of his experiences there, he went on to found a new school of psychotherapy, Logotherapy, based on finding meaning in suffering.

He once told the following story. A woman phoned him in the middle of the night and calmly told him that she was about to commit suicide. Frankl kept her on the telephone and talked her through her depression, giving her reason after reason to carry on living. Eventually she promised him she would not take her life, and she kept her word.

When they met later, Frankl asked her which of his reasons she had found convincing. “None”, she replied. What then persuaded her to go on living? Her answer was simple. Frankl had been willing to listen to her in the middle of the night. A world in which someone was prepared to listen to another’s distress seemed to her one in which it was worthwhile to live.

What an underrated art listening is. Sometimes it is the greatest gift we can give to a troubled soul. It is an act of focused attention. It means being genuinely open to another person, prepared to enter their world, their perspective, their pain. It does not mean that we have a solution to their problem. There are some problems that cannot be solved. They can only be lived through, so that time itself heals the rupture or loss. When we listen, we share the burden so that its weight can be borne. There are times when friendship calls simply for a human presence, a listening ear and an understanding heart, so that soul can unburden itself to soul.

There is no book in the Bible as haunting as the story of Job. Job loses everything: his family, his property, his health. For chapter after chapter he gives voice to his complaints, rejecting the false comforts of his friends. Finally, out of the whirlwind, God appears to him. Instead of giving him answers to his questions, however, God asks him four chapters of unanswerable questions of His own. After this, Job finds the strength to carry on.

After reading this strange book many times it eventually occurred to me that it is a meditation on listening itself. Job did not seek to be vindicated. He merely demanded a hearing. Unlike his comforters, he did not believe that every instance of human suffering has an explanation we can understand. That always will be beyond the scope of the human imagination. What Job wanted was something else: confirmation that his plight was known and his words heard. That is what he discovered in the heart of the whirlwind. God listens. The universe is not deaf to our cry. God, the personal presence at the core of being, enters the broken heart and makes it whole again. To be listened to is to be affirmed.

That is what God does in the Bible. He listens to those who otherwise go unheard — to Ishmael, driven from home; to Leah, unloved; to Rachel and Hannah, longing for a child; to the Israelites as they groan under the burden of slavery; to David as he pours out his emotions in the Book of Psalms. God listens, and in listening gives us the strength to live. Not accidentally are the most famous words of Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael. I used to translate this as “Hear, O Israel”.

I now know that it means, “Listen, O Israel”. Listening is where pain is healed by being shared.[promotional module]