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Life / Relationships

Can we listen through the pain?

Can we listen through the pain?

I opened the email at work, which was the only reason I was keeping it together at all. I was pretty sure I had just read the end of my 15-year-long-best-friendship.  There was something in the words about not listening or hearing her, but all I read was condemnation of me. I typed back, “I heard that. I heard it loud and clear,” and pushed send. “Heartbroken” is such a trite thing to be, but it was nevertheless how my insides felt—broken.

This was not a unique experience to me. People of all ages and backgrounds have had broken relationships, holes in their lives, and aches that cause them to move around in a fog. Some of us aren’t on speaking terms, maybe not for years. Our relatives know exactly how to push buttons. Our church or school family can betray us. Marriages disintegrate. Promises of BFF friendship bracelets ring hollow. We throw up walls of separation and drift apart.

How do we reconcile with each other when denial and a stop-gap protection from the pain seems safer and easier?

I knew better than to reply to an email when I was overflowing with emotion, but my gut-reaction got the best of me. Thoughts began to swirl, melodramatic as they were. “She is rejecting me. How can this email be anything but writing me off? I can be tough, too. I don’t need her…or anybody. I’m a master at pretending that I don’t care.”

To make a long story short, my friend and I valued our history enough to eventually calm down, become vulnerable, and truly listen. The idea of not being friends was scarier than seeing if we could piece together an understanding. Putting aside self-centeredness enough to hear someone else’s pain is exhausting, but crucial. The experience, hard as it was, forever underscored for me how important it is to feel heard. And also, how dangerous it is for relationships to talk at or past each other. My friend and I had more than a one and done “I’m sorry” conversation. We entered into a new stage, a stage that I hope is stronger, and involves me shutting my mouth.

All levels and types of relationships could benefit from a willingness to listen: a student quick to insist that the teacher doesn’t know them at all while trying every adolescent trick to beg for attention; the employee who feels overlooked and underappreciated; the boss who feels more like a counselor than a manager; any number of politically-minded people who have tried to have a conversation with someone with an opposing viewpoint recently; every marital argument that includes the words, “you aren’t listening to me” or “that’s not what I said;” even the two voices that battle against each other in some of our own brains.

The philosopher Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” Any songwriter who has discussed the subject of love agrees with him. I know I fell in love to the soundtrack of the lyric, “I’ll know my name as it’s called again,” looping in my subconscious (Mumford & Sons). The longing to be heard, seen, and known comes up in the musical analysis of relationships time and time again, especially when there is a lack of those things.

Step one, you say we need to talk. He walks, you say sit down, it’s just a talk. He smiles politely back at you. You stare politely right on through…” (The Fray)

What do I do to make you love me? What have I got to do to be heard?” (Elton John)

“Tell me again. We’re alone and I’m listening. I’m listening so hard that it hurts.” (Leonard Cohen)

And of course, Adele’s latest unanswered plea to be heard, “Hello, it’s me…Hello, can you hear me?…Hello from the other side…Hello from the outside.”

Reconciliation comes from a Latin word meaning “to make good again” or “to repair.” It is different from moving on and letting go. It is not the same as forgiveness for the sake of emotional health. It does not mean keeping your distance for the sake of civility. True reconciliation is unimaginable to many: beautiful, rare, and depending on how deep the wound, requires an incredible amount of work. It implies a relationship that has been healed and continues to endure.

People cannot truly come together, or in the case of reconciliation, back together, unless they each feel safe. And emotional safety comes from feeling truly heard and seen. Luckily, my friend and I remembered this truth during our argument. It’s an ongoing process of reflective listening, of checking in with each other about what each of us is hearing and seeing.

There is much discussion in America right now about how to listen to differences and reach across divides. Many people have theories or an angle on how to heal our hurting country. I would love to think that Christians could take the lead in this journey. We spend a lot of time speaking about forgiveness. Other religions do as well. I wonder how much of a difference this talking makes. Are we, in reality, more willing or able to make amends? How much easier does the preaching make the practice? Is the idea of how much has been forgiven of us transformational? Or how often does this simple and beautiful idea of forgiveness and reconciliation prove elusive to humanity?

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on reconciliation from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. I love words that are beautiful, clever, and true, and I wish to be as funny and smart as I feel inside my head. I teach, hug, talk, sing, and eat pizza.

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