Listening is providing a bed for someone to dump out their suitcase on.” This profound insight is from my good friend, Gerry Janzen, Professor Emeritus at Christian Theological Seminary. Everyone who knows Gerry knows that, when he says something like that, there is more to come.
Gerry told me of his sitting beside a man on a long airplane flight. The man “spilled his guts”. He shared one problem after another. He did it with no expectation that Gerry would solve the problems. He did it knowing that he would likely never see Gerry again. Why would he do this? Why do we share our problems with others?
Gerry then told of traveling years ago with his family, first from Indianapolis to Vancouver BC. It was a 3 week trip. They returned home for 3 days and then traveled to Boston for 3 weeks. He said that when you are on this kind of trip, you want days when you can just dump out your suitcase on the bed and sort through the stuff. It always feels better when you put everything back in, folded and in some semblance of order.
This, Gerry says, is what listening provides. It is a bed on which people can dump their dirty, rumpled and used lives, sort through their chaos to see where important things are, and then put it all back into the suitcase and get back in their lives and move on. When we live out of our suitcase, when we are always on the move, it is nice to take time to sort through our stuff and organize it.
When you are sitting with someone and they are pouring out their heart to you, it may be sufficient to just allow them to dump. They might then sort it through, get some degree of organization, and find freedom to move forward with their life. What a gracious gift to offer!