Dear Older Self,
One of the best gifts you can give is to listen well. By listening well I mean several things. To listen well is to listen without judgement. To listen well is to listen with the intention of knowing and understanding someone more fully. To listen well is to empathize with their sorrow, their joy, their playfulness, their silences.
Listening may seem easy. But it is not. It is difficult because it requires that you stop talking.
Maybe we should pause right there. Deep breath. And another.
Yep. Listening is first of all about not talking all the time. It is about being quiet. It is about sitting in the quiet with another person making room for real conversation to emerge.
The thing that can be attractive about talking is that it provides the person who is talking with some sense of control. Talking can also ease the anxiety that we might experience in moments of silence.
Listening can be challenging because it requires that you make space for others to speak. It requires that you put your agendas aside. It requires you to make space in your heart and mind for another person in whatever way they choose to share themselves with you.
If they choose to be quiet in the silent spaces your job is to be at peace in the quiet with them. If they want to talk about the weather, sports or the price of tomatoes enjoy their company and light conversation. If they choose to share more receive what they offer with gratitude.
The reality is that you may be lonely. You may be feeling a need for more attention. You may want a chance to talk. And, of course, it is good for you to talk. It is good for you to share your life and thoughts, your sorrows and laughter. It is important, however, to do this in a way that is thoughtful of others.
I know that you remember what it was like to visit with elderly loved-ones who were compulsive talkers. Perhaps it was their loneliness, or their anxiety, or a need to control the situation—but, whatever the reason, you found yourself in those situations rarely feeling like you were heard or seen at all. As a result you sometimes felt invisible and devalued. And you came away from time with them feeling exhausted.
Fortunately, I know that you also remember what it is like to be seen, heard and valued by your elders. You know what it is like to have someone listen well to you, no matter what you had to say. You know what a gift this can be —to know someone is genuinely interested in you without expectations or judgments.
Remember what a joy it was to watch as one of your elderly parents engaged with your teenage kids? Remember how she read the books they were reading and talked sports with the grandkids who were excited about a team? She found ways to engage with them and to listen to whatever they were interested in even as those interests changed over the years.
And remember the elderly friend who was always interested in your work as a teacher? He would ask you about what you were teaching most recently and often would ask you what you were learning from your students. Remember how much it meant to you that he listened to you in this way—how valued and supported you felt as a result?
Dear older self, I want you to be intentional about giving the gift of listening. It is a gift that lets people know they are seen and known. It communicates that they matter—that they are loved. Listening can help people to feel less isolated and alone. It can help people clarify their thoughts and feelings.
If you sometimes forget what people have shared with you, take some notes to help you remember. You might want to write these notes in your prayer journal or in the “notes’ app on your phone. The next time you talk you can ask about a concern they shared, a doctor’s visit they had, or the test or recital they were anxious about.
It is, of course, a gift to yourself to listen well to others. It opens the way for deeper intimacy and connection between you and the other person. It opens your heart to their heart.
So whether you are on the phone, on Skype or visiting in person ask about the other person. Ask more than “How are you?” kinds of questions. Ask about what you know matters most to the other person.
Listen with delight and curiosity. Listen with humility and kindness. Listen with compassion. Give the gift of listening well.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com