I was chatting with a young colleague the other day who was complaining to me that he needed to change his email address because it included his birth year — 1981. I pointed out to him that from my perspective he was still young and he didn’t have worry about those kinds of things yet. “When you get to be my age, then you need to worry about things like that.” I told him. He responded with, “Let me rant! It’s a challenge for me and I need to rant about it.” He said it somewhat in jest, but I immediately realized the truth of what he was saying. It didn’t matter what my situation or circumstance was in that moment, he simply needed to tell me what his was, and I simply needed to listen. In that moment I remembered a very important lesson: people want and needs to be seen, heard, and affirmed.
What a simple thing it is to listen, to bear witness to what another person is experiencing. If we practice, we can learn how to sit and listen without judgment, to hold space for another person, to be with and contain whatever it is they need to express. I have a long way to go in developing my attending skills. It’s more than the physical act of hearing and interpreting sounds as they come in. It’s in your posture and your body language: your energy, your eye contact, your stillness. Everything about you says, “Go on, I’m listening. You have my attention.” Looking back over my life, I wish that as a often harried, exhausted, single working mother I had taken more time to create this attentive space for each of my children. They often needed more from me than I felt able to give back then. And while I cannot go back and restore what they perhaps should have been given back then, I can do my best to give it to them now.
The other day my daughter called me, which they* do at various times throughout any given week. On this particular day we were chatting when the other line beeped and I saw that a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while was calling. I hesitated for a moment and then went on in conversation with my daughter. I realized in that moment of hesitation how often I have said to them, “Oh, MJ, so-and-so person is on the other line, I need to take this.” And I disconnect from them–not simply from the call–and move on. There are times when I really do have to take the call on the other line, but those times are rare. By making a decision to attend to my offspring I am letting them know that they are important to me. “I see you,” the African greeting so prevalent in many parts of the continent, is a reminder to me of the importance of acknowledging the people around me.
I used to say in half irritation and half jest, “Do I wear a sign that says ‘I’m nice, talk to me?'” People on the airplane, in the grocery store line and in all manner of circumstances and situations feel comfortable talking to me, telling me their life stories, sharing their worries and concerns. As I am basically an introverted person this has at time proven quite difficult for me. But in the midst of the long plane rides on which I am periodically held hostage by a non-stop talker, I recognize that the person really needed to talk, to reach out to a total stranger for affirmation and acknowledgment. And if that stranger happens to be me, then it must be a thing I am put here on the planet to do. After a while I began to realize that I really do wear a sign that says, “I see you. You can talk to me.” And that’s just fine by me.
What does any of this have to do with the Lenten season? Perhaps nothing, although after I had started writing on this theme, I saw an article on what Pope Francis hoped that Christians around the world would “give up” for Lent. He suggested that people give up “indifference to our neighbor,” and be more intentional about reaching out to and supporting our fellow human beings. And so throughout these 40 days I will attend to the people around me. I will listen, bear witness, and acknowledge them. I will continue to connect with, reach out to, and engage people around me, even strangers. I will not walk past a person without smiling and making eye contact. “I see you,” I am telling them, “and I wish you well.” And so it is.
*My daughter’s preferred gender pronouns are “they and them.”