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Chaplain's Corner: Being a listening ear is a selfless service

By Chaplain (Capt.) Brian Musselman | 673d ABW Chaplain | July 10, 2014


The "Chaplain's Corner" offers perspectives to enhance spiritual/religious resiliency in support of Air Force and Army Comprehensive Fitness programs.

Comments regarding specific beliefs, practices, or behaviors are strictly those of the author and do not convey  endorsement by the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the Army, the Air Force, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or the 673d Air Base Wing.

While I was working through a clinical residency as a hospital chaplain years ago, I was asked if I was able to be "at home in silence."

This was asked of me as I was learning how to care for patients, their families, and hospital staff.

Just as I did back then, you might now be asking yourself what the question means.

It took me a while to even understand the meaning behind the question.

After reflecting upon it for quite some time - days, in fact - I realized a lot of my care and attention towards patients and their families came from what I thought they needed - even before I listened to them tell me their own needs.

Visiting patients, families and staff, years ago, was most comfortable when I was speaking words of care and comfort into their lives.

Sounds like what a chaplain or pastor should be doing, right?

The key, subliminal message of this statement is "what's comfortable for me."

Rather, what I needed to learn, through time, experience, and practice was addressing what's comfortable for them.

I believe this makes for a great chaplain - to be focused on others and to consider their interests above my own.

One way to get better at this, I discovered, is to learn how to be at home in silence.

After several days thinking about this, I learned "home in silence" meant "being comfortable in listening."

It's far too easy to conjure up my own assumptions and intuit what I believe the other person is feeling or needs.

Additionally, it's too easy to expect that the care given to one family is exactly what another family needs.

This rarely is the norm. Every person is different and so are his needs.

I like what our nation's 30th President, Calvin Coolidge, said nearly 90 years ago, "No man ever listened himself out of a job."

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century philosopher, poet and author, said, "the greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer."

Isn't it easy to visualize someone leaning into Thoreau and listening attentively with excitement and anticipation to learn from him?

Listening is an art form that takes practice, and it's not a craft used for personal gain, but it is a part of care and concern I can give to all people - and which we can give to others.

At its core, it is an action which stems from a service-before-self attitude.

Winston Churchill reminds us that "courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."

Being at home in silence takes courage, because it's not always what is said that's important, but it's what's heard that matters.

"Home" carries with it different connotations for each of us.

Home can be inviting and warm; it can also be something to avoid and associated with great pain.

For me, home is comfortable, being surrounded by people who love me in all circumstances, and a place where I can escape and relax.

(Home is also my place off base that I'm constantly remodeling, fixing or paying someone for the upkeep of.)

It's a place that I am always creating to be some sort of sanctuary, a hiding place, a place to find rest and renewal.

Of course, this is not always easy to do with a family of four and a dog and a fish.

Nevertheless, home is where I can simply "be" with no external pressures.

Being at home in silence with another person is like being in a comfortable place, relaxed, and anticipating learning from what he has to share or wants to say.

The aim of the listener, the one that is at home in silence, is not necessarily to bring solutions, but to join the other person in her journey.

The challenge in doing this, in putting the interests of others above my own, is that I may not agree with what he is saying or decisions she is making.

Being at home in silence means I don't have to agree; I can still offer them my presence and listening ear.

On one occasion, I made a quick introduction to a patient.

I said very few words and maybe one complete sentence during this visit.

After many tears were shed by this person, and noticing that it was time to continue my rounds with other patients, family and staff, I headed for the door.

After I said my goodbyes, this person replied, "thank you for all you did for me today, chaplain."

Walking out the door, baffled, I asked myself, "what did I do for this person?"

I listened.

In my own faith tradition as a Christian, I have held onto the encouraging words of truth, "be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to become angry."

Go ahead, try and listen yourself out of a job.

Others will benefit, and you'll be surprised at the blessing you receive from your service-before-self attitude and action.