The most precious of gifts: listening


This month’s column is available as a video; the text is below the video.

Recently I wrote a post on my blog about dealing with the noise, busyness and general chaos of the Christmas season. Our involvement in the many worthwhile activities of decorating, cooking, entertaining, party-hopping, buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, volunteering our time and treasure to charities, and spending time with our families can make our heads spin. I proposed that a renewed focus on the season of Advent, with its call to simplicity and quiet, would make a wonderful antidote.

Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia (Flickr)

Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia (Flickr)

A reader responded with an unexpected comment: “I have the opposite problem. I would love a bit of noise and chaos at Christmas.” Jay described her situation of caring for a homebound mother and a disabled husband, with other family members living too far away to visit. Suddenly my assumption that a quiet Christmas was best for everyone felt arbitrary. “Quiet” can assume many forms, including loneliness and isolation.

I immediately wrote back to Jay, attempting to offer some consolation; I wanted to do something to mitigate her circumstance. In the writing I realized that I too understood the ramifications of a Christmas “gone quiet.” My own family circle has grown noticeably smaller over the years with my parents gone and my sister, brother-in-law and nephews scattered across the country. Although the circumstances were different, Jay and I ended up sharing a common problem.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

Jay responded to my letter, opening up about her situation. Because of her husband’s disability, it is nearly impossible for them to visit friends. In fact, in order to see her mother on Christmas day, she has to leave him behind. She waxed nostalgic on the past, writing, “we had such a lovely time with the cousins and aunts and uncles when I was a child, and when we lived closer by.” She wrote of longing to help others, of getting a tree only to leave it unadorned and of the futility of buying gifts when no one really needed anything. She gently berated herself in her longing for Christmases past full of Santa Claus, gifts and overeating; as a teacher in the Methodist church she is keenly aware of the true meaning of the day.

However, as we continued to write back and forth, I noticed her mood quickly shifting from laments to gratitude. Jay began recounting her blessings, most notably the love she has for her husband and mother. I could feel the warmth of that love coming across the Atlantic from her home in Ipswich, England to mine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. It was then that I began to understand the power behind listening.

I had entered into the correspondence assuming my usual role of problem solver; I was going to make everything better! It soon became clear however that I was meant to be a friend; to listen to and acknowledge another person’s life story. It was not about me solving a problem and looking like a hero; it was about Jay needing someone to be fully present, listening with mind and heart. Paying attention to her life rather than mine required humility.

Yet, once I surrendered to the idea, I could see God’s grace unfolding. The focus of our letters changed from melancholic remembrances to gratitude for the blessings we both enjoy. Gratitude fueled action with Jay vowing to get into the spirit by attending a couple of get-together lunches and taking in a local concert of carols presented by her town’s brass band. I, in turn, volunteered to join a band of Christmas carolers in our parish, and inquired about taking communion to nursing home residents. Jay and I are exchanging gifts through the mail. Listening has turned strangers into friends.

comfort by beverley goodwin Jay and I love watching online kitten cams together.

Comfort by Beverley Goodwin (Flickr) Jay and I love watching online kitten cams together.

Our correspondences caused me to examine myself: why do I insist on giving people what I would not want for myself? When I share my heart with someone, I don’t want judgment or unsolicited advice or easy answers. Many problems cannot be solved but rather, must be endured. I just want a sympathetic ear. Doesn’t it make sense then that sometimes my family and friends, neighbors and even strangers just want someone to accept where they are at that very moment and sit close by, saying nothing?

I experienced this recently as another friend shared with me the pain of watching her best friend slip away behind the fog of dementia. I empathized, recalling my mother’s mental deterioration and personality change, but decided that it was best just to let her talk. We ended our conversation in silence, looking at each other with misty eyes.

Jay taught me how to do that.

If I were to sit on Santa’s knee, I would say: “St. Nicholas, please ask the Lord to help me grow in grace as a good listener.”

For listening is one of the most precious gifts we can give to each other.

Copyright 2014 Susan Bailey


About Author

Susan Bailey is the author of River of Grace Creative Passages Through Difficult Times (Ave Maria Press), and Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message (ACTA Publications), part of their Literary Portals to Prayer series. Along with her blogs Be as One and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, Susan writes for the Diocese of Worcester newspaper, The Catholic Free Press.


  1. Victoria Shroyer on

    This story will hold me through the Holidays. I just lost my sister to cancer and feel alone. I know I am not but I pray for peace that passes understanding.

  2. That was beautiful. Thanks for the tears. I, too, will pray for the gift of listening, especially since I am struggling with my foolish pride today.

  3. I can understand a bit of what she’s going through, as I honestly find Christmastime the most lonely and melancholy time of the year (I joke that I love the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord but that I hate Christmas). As a single 35-year old, I continue to deal with any friends of my younger days having long peeled away (mostly as they married) and my brothers spending the holiday traveling with their spouses as I, like Jay, deal with a homebound parent – since my mother’s death a decade ago, I’m the care-giver of my now 80-year old father. My Christmas is spent ushering at multiple masses so that others can spend time with their families, then going home to usually sit in the dark. The other highlight of the season for me is helping host a Christmas party (the only one I ever get to attend each year) at the local Catholic nursing home – where I look around and realize that I’ll almost certainly end up (I *could* be like my mother and die before retirement age). With my finances having never recovered from having to drop out of my early career and move home right as the job market was crashing to help my mother through her last days, I can’t expect to ever find a wife or support children, so I won’t ever have anyone to help me like I’m helping my father (putting that annual trip to the nursing home in a different perspective). I try sometimes to talk about this with my fellow Catholics, but none understand the idea of NOT finding a spouse before 25 (even my pastor is a former Lutheran minister with pastoral privilege, and hence a married man and grandfather multiple times over)…

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