A listening ear

Listening is an art form. In this technological age in which multiple devices sharply curtail the need for personal communication, let's hope it isn't a dying art form — that text or email screens never replace the human ear.

"The ear is the road to the heart," wrote French philosopher and historian, Voltaire (1694-1788).

Many years ago, a man who was then a stake patriarch answered a knock at his door to find a prominent member of the community standing there. After he was welcomed inside, the visitor explained he had come for counsel. Business reverses had begun to affect his health, he explained. For three hours, the visitor spoke of his worries, concerns and problems.

The patriarch, later speaking of the visit without disclosing the identity of the visitor, said, "All I did was listen. I nodded now and again to let my friend know I was alert. But mostly, I just listened" (Church News, Jan. 13, 1985, p. 16).

Good listening is the antidote to many ills.

"What people need is a good listening to," wrote Mary Lou Casey, a modern-day poet and columnist whose homespun wit — filled with wise insight — was captured on a greeting card.

A lesson on the importance of listening was taught by President Harold B. Lee, the 11th president of the Church, as he told of an experience of one of his daughters with her firstborn son:

"It was a warm summer night, and Mother was trying to finish canning some apricots.

"As she worked frantically, her two little sons, one aged 4 and the other 3, came pajama-clad into the kitchen. They were ready for her to hear them say their prayers.

"Not wishing to be interrupted, she said, 'Now boys, why don't you just run in and say your prayers alone tonight and Mother will keep working with these apricots.'

"David, the older of the two tots, paused in front of his mother, and then said: 'But Mommy, which is more important, prayers or apricots?' " ("Strengthening the Home" brochure, 1973; quoted in Church News, Jan. 13, 1985, p. 16).

Many problems could be solved, or avoided altogether, if parents listened to their children and children listened to their parents, and if teachers and other adults listened to the young people in their charge. Sometimes, problems are solved not because of great actions taken but because someone listened.

A school teacher had some difficulties with a "problem student," a 14-year-old young man. The teacher did just about everything she could think of to make things easier. In exasperation one day, she asked, "What in the world is your problem?"

The boy said, "I'm hungry."

This was in the days before schools in the United States had free lunch programs for students who could not afford to buy food in the cafeteria. The teacher asked why he didn't bring a lunch from home. "Grandma won't let me," he said.

The teacher spoke with the guidance counselor, who discovered that the student lived with his grandmother who, in the kindest terms, could be described as "mean as a rattler." The woman, who later was diagnosed as being mentally ill, kept locks on the food cupboards and refrigerator in her house; she allowed her grandson to eat only one bowl of cold cereal for breakfast. She would not let him take any food out of the house.

A way was found for him to have lunch every day. Because the teacher listened, the young man became much less of a "problem student."

Often, when a tragedy or disaster happens, volunteers rush to give assistance. They clear debris from homes devastated by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes or other acts of nature. They clean carpets and walls. They bring in food, clothing and even toys for children. They endeavor to fill every need they can see.

Some people, unable to offer physical labor or monetary donations, serve by listening. These listeners can be found just about anywhere there is human suffering, tragedy, sorrow or disappointment: amid the twisted ruins of an F5-level tornado or the ashes of a home lost to fire, in a waiting area outside a hospital's operating room, in a care center's room where resides a man or woman no longer able to tend to the ins and outs of daily living, in a quiet corner of school grounds where a young man or young woman is caught in the social throes of adolescence, on the playground where a child wails, "No one likes me!"

A listening ear goes far in alleviating pain, lessening sorrow, cheering up a sad countenance. Indeed, as Voltaire opined, it is the road to the heart.

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