A few dear friends took me out for dinner for my birthday this past spring. While eating dessert, one in the group directed everyone to say a few words to me. I was expecting the standard 'happy birthday' and attendant good wishes. To my surprise, my friends shared some deeply felt sentiments and observations about me in how they each have known me over the years. I learned that I am seen as one who never gives up on a friend, admired for being capable and organized, and complimented for being a good cook and an accomplished parent.
I left that dinner humbled, feeling so grateful to know how friends think of me. I don’t know that we often make opportunities to tell people what we think of them, and in what ways they impact our lives. Life-cycle events such as births, b'nai mitzvot and funerals provide public settings for heartfelt words to be spoken. While meaningful and touching, these are frequently expected as well as scripted. In my case, the spontaneity of the situation was a critical to my truly hearing what was being said. Upon reflection, I can suggest this is an instance of sacred listening.
David Isay, the founder of the Story Corps project calls listening 'an act of love.' Think about a time when you've been a good listener to someone who has poured their heart out to you. In addition to expressing gratitude, perhaps they also walked away feeling acknowledged or supported, or loved. What has transpired was no ordinary conversation. There was holiness in the experience.
When we deeply and actively listen, enable others to tell their stories or share deeply personal thoughts, we validate that their lives are important. But we aren't often in the right situation to talk, much less be the attentive listener. Rachel Naomi Remen, in Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal writes: "Real stories take time. Life rushes us along and few people are strong enough to stop on their own. Most often, something unforeseen stops us and it is only then that we have the time to take a seat at life's kitchen table, to know our own story and tell it, and to listen to other people's stories".
Each one of us has the ability to listen deeply. And most people jump at the chance to talk about themselves, and are easily prompted to tell their stories. The prophet Isaiah teaches: "listen that you may live". May each of us, in the rush of our own days find those opportunities for sacred speaking and listening.