Sometimes you just want to get on with your work. But the nurse on duty was being polite and asking what I studied. Then his moustache twitched excitedly and his eyes lit up and out poured a tale of world travel and priest training and the joy of hermeneutics. A discussion of Mary as co-redemptrix settled into whether women should lead in the church, settled into a lament that people no longer keep the Sabbath, settled into an exposition on the virtue of labradors. Now he sits across from me snoring gently.
Sometimes you just want to work out what bus you are supposed to catch between flights. But your fellow stranger in a strange land is even more lost than you. Sure, he knows which bus to catch and where, but soon the conversation turns to his nephew, lying dangerously ill of pneumonia in a hospital somewhere after drinking himself silly and nearly drowning himself because what good is his religion? And the stranger aches because he was born a muslim so that’s what he must be and yet he can’t stand the cruelty of the religion and the corrupt politics of his native Iran, but can’t seem to find the answer to the question he knows he is asking but doesn’t know quite what the question is.
Sometimes you just want to indulge in tedious festive small-talk. But the lady you are serving is desperate to finally tell someone that she doesn’t eat chocolate, that she hasn’t bought a selection box in twelve years because that Christmas, just as they had opened the wrapper the phone rang and her mother had passed away and she couldn’t face chocolate ever again.
Sometimes you just want to get to work. But your friend is sitting on your sofa staring across the firth and trying not to cry because life is just too much right now and there is no one to talk to because it’s coming into exam season and everyone is busy.
Sometimes people just need to talk. Mum picked up two hitchhikers once, Pamen and Alex, and once they got over their mild terror that we had invited them in and fed them, they told us how the UK wasn’t all they thought it was going to be. Or two Mormons we adopted who were so relieved that we fed them lamb and treated them like humans that their homesickness poured our of them in stories of summers spent bucking hay and dreams of starting a decorating business specialising in painting murals.
Some of these people didn’t particularly want to talk, but all of them needed to. My manager always tries to coax extra shifts out of me using the same appeal:
Think of the money.
She doesn’t understand that this is no motivation at all. You can always print more cash, but no one has discovered a way to mint a little extra time yet. Time has only grown more precious over the years, especially as the loss of loved ones mounts up.
It is one of the most valuable things you can give a person, and it’s often the very thing they need whether they realise it or not. Our culture (or perhaps our world) has very little time for anyone, particularly not broken people and especially if they can’t get anything out of them.
Spending an hour listening to someone’s story does nothing but eat up an hour of your time that could have been used more profitably. After all, nothing is achieved in those sixty minutes or so, except that now two people know the tale instead of one. And it makes you late for that important meeting at work.
Giving people your time is giving them something precious, and very much limited, which you can never get back. Doing so tells them that you value them — whether they realise it or not. There is always more money in the world, more food to be eaten, spare clothes and cars and beds. But not time. It just doesn’t work like that.
And so giving someone your time is one of the biggest sacrifices you can make, and one of the most important things you can ever give. Sure, it can be frustrating and inconvenient but loneliness is a terrible (and sometimes even fatal) epidemic our world.
The reason that ‘everyone has a story to tell’ is so clichéd is because it is so very true. Equally true is the fact that even people with thousands of friends, followers, and fans on social media often don’t have anyone they can actually just talk to. We all need that person though, you know it yourself.
There’s a point in one of my favourite books, Gatty’s Tale, which rung true and lodged in my mind as I read. At the very, very end of the book, Gatty has returned from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, having changed dramatically along the way, and her friend asks her about her trip so she starts to tell her. But beyond a brief sketch of the many exciting and life-changing events, her friend isn’t actually interested, she just wants to tell Gatty all of her (less) exciting news. And in that moment Gatty realises that no one is as interested in your own story as you are.
Whether this is true or not I leave you to judge, but the fact is that it shouldn’t be true. Stories need to be told and those stories also need to be listened to. People need to talk about labradors and chocolates and homesickness and heartbreak, and someone needs to listen to them.
I’m not asking you to sit on a street corner with a sign saying tell me your story. All I’m saying is that maybe you won’t get around to writing that blog post this week because the old guy at the next table in the coffee shop thinks you have the kind of face that wants to know how proud he is of his grandson for starting uni this year. Or maybe the laundry doesn’t get done because your friend from church needs to admit that actually, they’re not coping with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Or maybe you don’t get to clock off work and pick up a chinese before the takeaway closes because one of the kids you work with got into a fight at school and feels the need to explain his side of the story, but knows his mother will flip out rather than give him the chance.
Sixty minutes of sitting and letting someone talk doesn’t appear outwardly productive, but it can make all the difference. Giving them your time, something you can never get back, tells the person that they matter to someone, that they have a voice, and that someone out there cares enough to listen to it.
I believe that part of being Christlike lies in caring about people, even strangers and especially enemies and outcasts. Those five minutes, ten minutes, two hours you spend in listening are not wasted because you do not know what good may be done. Rather than shuffling awkwardly and glancing at your watch, be conscious that where there is conversation, there may be gospel opportunity. Simply taking time for someone in a world that doesn’t care displays a Christlike attitude that marks us out from those around us.
Of course, there will be occasions when someone is genuinely wasting your time or when you legitimately have none to spare but you do have more time than you think. Don’t begrudge an episode of your favourite Netflix series to someone who has something they need you to hear.
We live in a noisy, busy world and we need to learn to listen again, to value people and to make time for them. You may have nothing to show for it, you will certainly never get that time back but it is important to give the gift of a few of your quiet moments because for many, the healing begins with being heard.