Now that I can hear, can you?

First, another thanks and round of applause to the wonderful comments I’ve received the past couple of weeks.  My readers are incredibly awesome and insightful people!  Not everyone posts their comments publicly- but they are all fantastic!

I learned a new word this week. I mean really learned it instead of just having heard it before and tried using it in a sentence. The word is “ineffable”.

Maybe you already know what it means. The dictionary says “too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.

But I realize now that it is the word I haven’t been familiar with enough to describe the experiences people often share with me. A feeling, a condition, an experience so great or extreme that they find it difficult to capture in words.

In a blog a few weeks ago I tried to describe someone’s physical pain. This week someone described the tragedy of losing a loved one far more prematurely than expected. Others try to describe to me a fear of a situation looming, the dread of lingering past betrayal. Sometimes they try to describe a longing for something that seems out of reach, a lover or a child to name a few. For the record, the longing for chocolate is not ineffable. Rather, it is well documented by many including me.

My job is often an attempt to help people describe in words that which is indescribable. The goal is to help them feel understood, to share, if only for a few minutes that someone understands the weight of their burden. No one asks me to take the burden home with me, only to be heard and quite possibly to find a way to manage the feelings with a little more ease or at least grace.

I recall back when I worked in residential eating disorder treatment, the residents were often anxious around fat people

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. Some were disgusted, others literally terrified. It was as if, sitting next to someone fat put them in danger of catching the same. I find people’s reactions to intense feelings much the same. They grow impatient when listening to another, or worn down when they have to hear the same thing more than once. I believe this is most likely due to either not wanting to have to think about the same situation potentially occurring in their own lives like a contagion. Others may have a sense of inadequacy from not knowing how to respond appropriately. Of course, there are situations where we simply don’t care about the person or the subject, but these are not the ones I’m thinking about in this blog.

It is our human nature to want to be understood. Words; the construct of language is perhaps our best attempt to unite us. But what happens when words cause us more distance because of their inadequacy? What happens when the experience is ineffable?

Maybe the simple demonstration to not speak, but rather just to stay with another is an alternative. What might happen if we allow someone to describe something so ineffable to us and we don’t leave? What if we simply reached out our hand to theirs or put our arms around them. Maybe the best we can do is hand them a tissue. Don’t underestimate the value in simply being present with another who is in pain. Sometimes the value lies in the fact that they can see us sitting in our own discomfort and our willingness to stay as a model to help them tolerate something within themselves. Maybe it simply will make them feel less alone.

Someone recently introduced me to a video called “It’s not about the nail”. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s worth the 2 minutes or so watch. It’s another way of addressing the power of listening. And maybe, through the practice of listening to others with compassion, we will become more willing to do the same for ourselves.


2 thoughts on “Now that I can hear, can you?

  1. This really “spoke” to me. During a very difficult illness a very well-intentioned friend would call nearly every day to check on me. Her words lacked real support and were often challenging. At no point did she ever visit me and hold my hand, as you suggested, and just listen. I never felt “heard.” It caused a serious break in our friendship that has gradually repaired itself. I think all of us just want to really be heard. Dr. Mary’s article helps me to realize that I probably do this to others too. So often we hear others’ problems and just want to “fix” them, instead of just listening and offering comfort that doesn’t necessarily involve words.

    1. hitting the nail on the head Joyce- appreciate your self reflection and candor– we are ALL guilty of this from time to time.

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