I Will Listen to Your Pain

The first step that led to my commitment to listen to the pain of others came when no one was willing to listen to my pain.

It was in the summer of 1993 when I was called into the office of the President of Messiah College (PA) and was told that my services as Vice President for Academic Affairs was being terminated immediately because of my “lack of deference to the President and Board of Trustees.” From my perspective, the reason for my being fired  was that my collaborative leadership style was diametrically opposed to the command-and-control style of the President and Board.

A bruhaha resulted amongst my faculty. In an attempt to calm the troubled waters, the Board solicited the services of a mediator, who, I was told, talked to a lot of people, but never talked to me.

How could that be since it was my firing that led to the turmoil? The pain of being fired was amplified significantly by the fact that this mediator was not willing to listen to my side of the story; not willing to listen to my pain. I had been silenced.

But then, much to my surprise, I found a Trustee who was willing to listen to my pain. Or, more accurately, he found me.

That happened one sunny morning a few months after my firing when this Trustee, who was not involved in the decision to terminate my employment, showed up, unannounced, at my door in Dillsburg. His first words to me were “Harold, I want to hear your side of the story.”

These few words were a marvelous gift. Finally, a person in authority invited me to share my pain, with a commitment to listening. I cannot find words to adequately express the joy this kind gesture brought to me. Although it did not change the outcome, a sense of peace washed over me. It was something like coming across an oasis on a desert journey. As he left my home that morning, I knew that, at long last, because I had been listened to, I had been loved.

Since that experience over 26 years ago, I have aspired to listen to the pain of others, primarily by means of attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about contentious issues. The reason that listening to the pain of others is foundational for navigating such disagreements is that if you are willing  dig beneath the surface to uncover the reasons a person has taking a particular position on a given issue, you will often uncover a deep experience of pain, amplified by an unwillingness on the part of others to listen to that pain.

For example, there are many Christian members of the LGBT community who have experienced the great pain of being rejected by their families, friends or churches, or who have been relegated to second-class citizenship by being silenced within the Christian institutions or organizations, such as some Christian colleges, with which they are associated. And this pain of rejection or being second-class citizens has been amplified many times over by the refusal of other brothers and sisters in Christ to first listen to their stories of pain and then refusing to listen to the ways in which they also aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus.

Stories of heartbreaking pain now fill the airways; stories that make my story of pain pale by comparison. Precipitated by the brutal murder of George Floyd by policemen in Minneapolis, we hear, once again, of the police brutality, racism, discrimination and unjust inequalities in areas such as housing, health care and educational opportunities that cause considerable pain for black Americans. The root of many of these abuses can be traced back to the founding of our nation because of America’s original sin of slavery.

So, are there any lessons that we will finally learn? Three possibilities come to mind, all related by the common need to listen well to the pain of others.

First, as politicians struggle in the quest for adequate legislative responses to this persistent abuse of black Americans, they must not just talk “about” the problems that black Americans continue to experience, they must talk “with” black Americans, and the place to start that conversation is to listen to their stories of pain. For the last few weeks, peaceful protestors across the country have been pleading with the political class: “We need to be heard”; “You need to start listening  to our pain.” This plea has come not just from black Americans, but also from  Americans of various races and ethnicities who stand in solidarity with members of the black community.

Secondly, for those politicians and citizens who claim to be followers of Jesus, they need to be reminded of the central call of Jesus to love others and the pivotal truth that you don’t love someone who you have silenced. If you truly love someone, you will want to listen to their stories of pain. Creating a safe and welcoming space for someone to honestly share what is on their minds and hearts. including their stories of pain, is a deep expression of love.

Thirdly, I share a recommendation to those readers who have been following on this website my various attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements, based on a change I would now make in my “Trump conversation” if I could do that all over again.

A good aspect of my Trump conversation is that I did not allow the four Trump supporters and four non-Trump supporters to jump directly into the fray by laying bare their disagreements. Rather, we started our conversations by “getting to know one another” in a non-confrontational way by addressing questions like “Why are you here?”; “What do you hope to get out if this conversation?”

I had hoped that my conversation partners would respond to these questions by drawing on their personal stories. But few of them did so. I should have been more directive in my instructions for this initial session together. For those  readers who may decide to replicate my Trump conversation or who would like to initiate a small group conversation about any other contentious issue, such as endemic racism, I recommend the following Leading Question for your first session: What aspects of your personal story, including your experiences of pain, draw you to this conversation? And initiators of such conversations must include as conversation partners those for whom the issue is not theoretical; those whose life stories will reveal the great pain they have experienced.