At the Listening Post we have experienced the underbelly of the holiday season since we opened our doors over 11 years ago. The experience of grief and isolation during holiday time is often masked by the emphasis on giving and receiving of gifts and holiday gatherings promising good cheer. Such an emphasis can create an extra burden of suffering for those who genuinely experience stress and difficulties around holidays. Imagine feeling the blues and someone telling you to, “Cheer up, it’s Holiday Time!” Would that actually cheer you up?
There is a level of encouragement which is integral in the act of listening. It may not fit our predefined idea of encouragement and it certainly doesn’t fit the sentiment of cheer leading. Cheer leading is promoted in our culture, whether it is called that or not. Awards go to those who have done well in the public eye and when a child participates in an activity at school they get a gold star sticker – these are simple examples but they point to the cheer leading phenomenon which gives an obvious though indirect message: I love you when you are good.
While it may be helpful to another if we cheer them on, if we only cheer them on something gets lost in translation. The message that we are loved when we do good leaves us very isolated. None of us are ‘good’ all of the time. None of us feel good all of the time, either. To be told we should or could feel good can bring about the opposite.
Human suffering is as normal as the impulse to relieve it. They seem to arise simultaneously. We’ve looked at the co-arising of pairs of opposites before in our journey as listeners. The sacred act of listening is not immune to the impulse to relieve suffering, yet listening has taught us to focus on the individual who is suffering and not the suffering itself. That small shift in focus makes all the difference in the world.
As I sat in a local cafe and began writing this letter, a person I never met before asked me what I was doing. “Looks like you are working. What are you working on?” I mentioned the Listening Post and it turns out this individual is a gifted listener. We ended up sharing for an hour about the art of listening, how it changes us, the simplicity and profundity of the act of listening. He did not know what this letter was about when he mentioned to me that, “In our culture, we have forgotten how to lament.”
If we are only cheer leaders we really have forgotten how to lament. When we hear of someone’s problems or broken heart and rush in to try to fix it with our advice or suggestions, we have lost the recognition that lamentation is in our own experience as well. We have forgotten that when we are grieving or stressed or just plain got the blues… being cheered up can feel like an insult.
During this season of gift giving and receiving, this season of gathering in good cheer, if you notice someone who isn’t sharing in on the collective joy, listen. Listening is an incognito form of gift giving and receiving, a private gathering of good lamenting. If it isn’t judged in advance, good lamenting might just bring good cheer. Letting go of outcome, paradoxically, often does.
with deep gratitude for your listening heart,