“Thanks for Listening” writes Pat Griffin in his series on Considering Consecrated Life
Brandon Stanton is a young, New York Times’ bestselling author with three books in print. He draws over 15 million followers on Facebook. His ambition, he says, is to take photographs of 10,000 New Yorkers. He feels driven by this mission.
Two weeks ago, I went to Stanton’s lecture in Carnesecca Arena at St. John’s University. Since then, I have been reading with greater seriousness his Humans of New York: Stories. Actually, “reading” might not be the right way to describe a person’s relation to Stanton’s work. Most pages have a few words and one large picture. Reading one and then looking at the other without reflection devalues his effort. I do not want to make him out to be some sort of cultural genius, but he does have a good eye for photography with the ability to capture a moment and a good ear for listening to discern the heart of a story. His particular gift brings the two senses together. One could move through his book quickly just glancing at the words and skimming the pictures. Greater effort, however, is rewarded. Often he hits the same mark visually and verbally.
At the lecture, when he spoke about his work, he concentrated on the stories. He spoke of how he encouraged people to tell him something about themselves by asking them a series of questions. I understand why his technique succeeds. Lots of us (all of us?) have stories held in that we want to let out. Sometimes we may want to tell them to a stranger because of the presumed lack of judgment and the freedom to describe a situation without prejudice. (In the Christian sacrament of Reconciliation—confession—this dynamic can operate during a graced encounter.) I imagine that a lot of people felt grateful to Brandon for paying attention to them. Is it just me that thinks that so many of his encounters were with lonely people?
Look around. Do you see lonely people among us? They can be painfully obvious or hidden, but they abound. Perhaps, at some time, we have known that kind of loneliness ourselves. The solution lies in finding someone who will pay attention to our story. Many people will talk readily, but how many are really able to hear? Sometimes, people will wait their turn to speak, but, again, this does not embrace the kind of listening that I mean. That seems more like courtesy. A genuine desire to hear involves a presence to the other without motives or plans. A really attentive person can draw the words out of us.
I have to believe that Jesus was a terrific listener. His ability to attract people to himself suggests that gift. His willingness, even desire, to dine with these people must have been a real enticement for them. Remember how he calls the tax-collector Bartimaeus from the tree. He speaks to the sinful woman in the home of the Pharisee, a place where she was not welcome. Even on the cross he provides the “good thief” with a sympathetic audience so that this lost brother may express his guilt and also his greatest concern.
Vincent also seemed to appreciate the fact that some people had a particular need for an attentive other. He instructs the Sisters that in their rounds of service of the poor, they should visit those without family last. He thought that these were the ones who pined for a human presence, a kind word, and an attentive ear. Harken to the instruction which he offers:
“Remember to begin always with the person who has someone with him and to end with those who are alone so [you] can spend more time with them. Then, [you] will return in the evening to bring them their supper, using the same system and order as above.” (VdP, CCD 13b, p. 13)
We note the sensitivity of Vincent’s spirit. How many stories (and perhaps the same story) did these Sisters hear!
As we approach Thanksgiving, perhaps we can be grateful for those kinds of “tuned-in” people in our lives. They bring a blessing. Or, perhaps, we can give someone else a reason to give thanks by our willingness to listen to their human story. Whatever ministries attract our attention as a Vincentian Family should also lead us to engage in the discipline of an active presence with sympathetic ears.