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Raymond Friel, the new head of CSAN, told a story at the recent Directors meeting that made a strong impression on me.

When he was a Head Teacher and with only a few minutes to go before a morning staff meeting, one of his colleagues asked if she could speak to him and it was clear that it couldn’t wait. He promptly asked his Deputy Head to take the meeting and gave a considerable amount of time to sit down and listen to his colleague. I don’t remember the details of what was said to Raymond (I think it was news just received of a serious diagnosis) but what struck me most was that Raymond recognised that what was most important in that moment was giving his full and undivided attention to that person so she could unload the burden she was carrying, and how appreciative she was to be listened to.

Jonathan Sachs once wrote an article for the Times entitled ‘Listening is the Greatest Gift we can Give to a Troubled Soul’. He told a story about Victor Frankl who survived Dachau and Auschwitz and went on to develop a new school of psychotherapy called Logotherapy. Frankl was called one night by a woman who said she was about to take her own life. He offered various reasons why she should not do that and eventually she said she felt better and would not kill herself. They met some time after that and Frankl asked which of his reasons had persuaded her to go on living. He was surprised by her reply that it was none of the reasons given. Rather, as Sachs writes in the article, “Her answer was simple. Frankl had been willing to listen to her in the middle of the night. A world in which someone was prepared to listen to another’s distress seemed to her one in which it was worthwhile to live.”

If only we could all respond as Friel and Frankl did whenever someone comes before us needing simply to talk and for another human being simply to listen: without interrupting; or giving opinions or judgements or solutions; or telling them to pull themselves together; or starting to talk about their own problems or agendas, or just peeping at their watch and thinking about the next task in the day.

Much of our work at the Irish Chaplaincy involves listening: whether that’s to someone in prison facing a long sentence, and a long way from home; or to an elderly person living alone; or to one of the many people who get in touch with us with a range of enquires and who oftentimes simply want to find a sympathetic and a culturally-sensitive ear on the end of the phone. In the Autumn Declan had several conversations with a wheelchair-bound woman from Belfast who had driven to London to care for her dying sister and ended up having to stay in a hotel for several weeks. It was an exhausting time for her and she was so grateful to have someone to talk to. So too the mother of a lovely man called Anthony who sadly died recently just after his release from prison. Breda was telling me that her phone calls with Anthony’s mother tended to be quite short but the mother was so happy that someone was taking the time to call and to ask how she was doing. And there are many messages of thanks from the Seniors. Rory told us a few months back about Christina: “She was so glad of my call. She said I was the only person to ring her all week. She said she doesn’t know how she could go on without them.” And he related Vera’s words to him, “I would be lost without your calls. I couldn’t have coped during the lockdown without your support. Your calls are the highlight of my week.”

Blue Monday this year falls on January 17th. It’s the Monday of the third week in January and was declared in 2005 by a travel company, Sky Travel, to be the day in the year when people are most likely to be depressed. The Samaritans have marked the day by giving out teabags at train stations, the message being that it’s good to talk, and they have on their signs at notorious suicide spots, next to the number to call, ‘When life gets tough, we’re here to listen.’ The Samaritans know, as Victor Frankl discovered as well, that good listening can be life-saving.

We might not be on the verge of ending it all but life is tough for each of us at one time or another and being given the space to simply tell whatever story needs to be told and for someone else to simply listen can be the most healing thing in the world.

Let’s all resolve in 2022 to offer one another the gift of listening.

 

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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