The Difficulties of Kind Listening

Father Faber speaks of the grace of kind listening: “Some men listen with an abstracted air, which shows that their thoughts are elsewhere. Or they seem to listen, but by wide answers and irrelevant questions show that they have been occupied with their own thoughts, as being more interesting, at least in their own estimation, than what you were saying. Some listen with a kind of importunate ferocity, which makes you feel that you have been put on your trial, and that your auditor expects beforehand that you are going to tell him a lie, or to be inaccurate, or to say something which he will disapprove, and that you must mind your expressions. Some interrupt, and will not hear you to the end. Some hear you to the end, and then forthwith begin to speak to you of a similar experience which has befallen themselves, making your case only an illustration of their own. Some, meaning to be kind, listen with such a determined, lively, violent attention that you are at once made uncomfortable, and the charm of conversation is at an end.”

Father Faber illustrates how the patience and resolve of the kind listener is tested. He observes: “Each man meets with peculiar characters who have a speciality, often quite inexplicable, of irritating him. They always come at the wrong time, say the most inopportune things, and make the most unfortunate choice of topics of conversation.” Consider these examples: “A man comes to us with an imaginary sorrow when we are bowed to the earth with a real one. Or he speaks to us with the loud voice and metallic laugh of robust health, when our nerves are all shrinking up with pain, and our whole being quivering, like a mimosa, with excruciating sensitiveness. Or he comes to pour out the exuberance of his happiness into our hearts which are full of gloom, and his brightness is a reproach, sometimes almost a menace, to our happiness. . . . Here is a grand material for sanctification. Nevertheless, such materials are hard to work up in practice. It is weary work cleaning old bricks to build a new house with. These are difficulties, but we have got to reach heaven, and must push on.”

“The more humble we are, the more kindly we shall talk; the more kindly we talk, the more humble we shall grow. An air of superiority is foreign to the genius of kindness. The look of kindness is that of one receiving a favour rather than conferring it. Indeed, it is the case with all the virtues, that kindness is a road to them. Kind words will help us to them.”

Quotations from Frederick William Faber, Kindness (London: R. & T. Washbourne, 1901).

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