Not Being Heard…

Cover of "The Call of Stories: Teaching a...
Cover via Amazon

Quote by Robert Coles in “The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, (page 22-24) regarding people (medical patients in this case) telling their own personal life stories.

“Dr. Ludwig urged us to let the story itself be our discovery. He went so far as to joke with me: “Let’s see, this is chapter ten we’re discussing today.” He urged me to be a good listener in the special way a story requires: note the manner of presentations; the development of plot, character; the addition of new dramatic sequences; the emphasis accorded to one figure or another in the recital; and the degree of enthusiasm, of coherence, the narrator gives to his or her account.     …..  

He remarked that first-year medical students often obtain textured and subtle autobiographical accounts from patients and offer them to others with enthusiasm and pleasure, whereas fourth-year students or house officers are apt to present cryptic, dryly condensed, and yes, all too “structured” presentations, full of abbreviations, not to mention medical or psychiatric jargon. No question: the farther one climbs the ladder of medical education, the less time one has for relaxed storytelling reflection. And patients’ health may be jeopardized because of it: patients’ true concerns and complaints may be overlooked as the doctor hurries to fashion a diagnosis, a procedural plan. It is not the rare patient who approaches a second doctor with the plea that he or she wasn’t heard, that the first physician had his or her mind made up from the start of a consultation and went ahead accordingly with a diagnostic and therapeutic regimen.”

This is about medical patients and counselees, but it applies in missions as well. What is our tendency.

1.  Since we are to be witnesses for Christ, we often think that our job is to talk, not listen.

2. Since we recognize that we know what the world needs, we think that there is nothing we can learn from others. But no matter how extensive our training is, only God is all-knowing.

3.  When we do listen, we are too focused on a spiritual diagnosis leading to a response from us (evangelize, argue, proof-text, encourage, disciple), rather than listening. When we are focusing on what we are going to say next, we are not really listening. Charlie Benton, a chaplain friend of ours, likes to say that “The greatest gift you can give a person after a crisis is your full, undivided attention, trying your best to understand what they have been going through.” Listening and reflecting should proceed diagnosis.

4.  We often focus on getting them to incorporate our jargon than on gaining understanding. We often focus on spiritual health with the use of our own preferred jargon. This can become so strong in us that we confuse spiritual health with the jargon. If a person can say the right things in the right way, then they must be okay. But if we honor their own jargon as they use it, we will better understand them and what they truly think and feel.

5.  We often feel that we must defend God, rather than allow the other to express painful perceptions. Elijah, Moses, the Psalmists, and  Habakkuk all argued and challenged God. God seemed to like it. People who care, confront. If you care about God, you will probably confront him. A phrase that was used in the Navy (for the sake of quote accuracy, please excuse my use of language), “A bitchin’ sailor is a happy sailor.” If a sailor is complaining, it shows that he cares and feels that he can freely express he problems and concerns in a healthy manner. In my time in the Navy, I had one suicide on my ship and two AWOLs (UAs). All three tended to repress their feelings, walking around with a bland smile. We are not looking for a bland repressed agreement with what we are saying. And neither is God.

However, there are advantages to listening to others.

A.  It’s consistent with the Golden Rule. If I had a burden on my heart, I would want someone to listen to me, trying to understand what I am going through, without being quick to judge me. If that is what I would want, others would probably want the same thing. This builds relationship.

B.  We can really understand someone by actively listening… and we will understand them best through their personal stories. If you ask someone to describe themselves, they will probably give some statistics (such as their age and schooling) and their social groupings (gender, nationaligy, occupation). But it is their stories that their true self becomes evident. This also builds relationship.

C.  Respect given is as respect received. If we respect a person enough to listen to their stories, we can anticipate being given enough respect for them to listen to ours. If they give their stories but refuse to listen to ours, they are selfish and/or disrespectful. But doesn’t that tell us something? If we expect others to listen to us but do not listen to others, it is reasonable that we are considered selfish and disrespectful.

D.  We may say, accurately, that everyone needs God… but that doesn’t mean that we know how they need God. God works in different ways with different people challenging them and encouraging them in different ways. Jesus told some to join Him on His travels being “fishers of men”. Others He told to stay behind and witness to friends and family. Some He healed first. Some He would talk as equals, while others He would discuss as a teacher, or as a prophet. God works with individuals individually, and sometimes groups as a group. But God is not a medicine that must be taken one way and one way only. We need to know the person to understand what God is looking to do in their life.

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