People Need You to Listen

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image

My mother loved birthdays. As a child, I felt wrapped in love by the flowers, the gifts selected with care, and my favorite meal. It's the "birthday questions" I remember most though. The person celebrating the birthday was asked to reflect on the lessons from the past year and hopes for the coming year. Even to a child, the message was clear. Our table was a place to talk about what mattered. This type of talking and listening on a deep level evolved into what we referred to as "round table talk." Though my mother was an accomplished cook, the food paled in comparison to the richness of the conversation we grew to expect. As teenagers and young adults, we would often linger for hours after the meal to continue our conversation. Even then I knew that was rare.

Our house was a favorite gathering place for my friends. They knew there would always be good food and someone who listened when they spoke. My mother stayed busy rearing four children, so it couldn't have been easy to make time and room for additional children. Yet when she asked them how they were doing, they knew she wanted the unedited answer. In doing so, she threw a few life lines.

At a recent gathering of some high school girlfriends, the conversation turned to my mother. We laughed remembering her pantry, bursting with dozens of cereal boxes, crackers, and cookies—a high school kid's dream. The conversation turned serious when two of them said that Mom saved their lives, providing comfort and connection against the backdrop of the harshness in their families.

As she was dying, her focus on genuine communication deepened, distilled by illness and the precariousness of each additional day. She spent her final months in the hospital awaiting a heart transplant, engaging even the transport technicians in soulful conversation about their lives. She told me during those days that she thought one of the great disservices we do to others is to see them every day without actually "seeing" them.

My mother has been gone years now, but lives on vibrantly at many a table among her family and friends. The "birthday questions" are now answered by her children, grandchildren, and countless friends who are guests at our tables. The tradition has expanded to questions that extend beyond season or celebration. It adds meaning to everyday meals.

Her commitment to truly see and hear others echoes in the work I do as a psychotherapist. I hear it in my siblings, who share her desire to talk with others about what matters. And I heard it recently at my own dinner table, when my son complained that our conversation after the meal had been too short.

It also extends outward, reminding me to practice seeing the people I interact with every day. When I'm at the grocery store, I see Mom's influence in my overflowing cart of groceries and the abundant pantry it feeds. And I fancy the checker sees it when I ask him how he's doing, and he gives me the unedited answer.

". . . let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another , , ." (Heb. 10: 24-25)