The sunlight slipped through the front windows as I sat at the kitchen table, attempting to finish my coffee before the day began. From the front of the house I heard the screeching of the gate opening, a sound so high-pitched there will never be a need for a doorbell. Moments later, my house helper let herself in quietly.
“Selamat pagi, Ibu,” I greeted her in my raspy, too-early-for-talking voice. She returned the morning greeting, sans raspy tone, with a faint smile. Her eyes looked weary, but she pressed forward with her daily tasks like always.
On this particular day, before she tucked herself away in our tiny kitchen to tackle the dirty dishes, I decided to check in with the happenings of her family.
“How’s your husband doing,” I asked her in regards to his ongoing health issues.
“He’s ok,” she replied, in her usual brief and to-the-point manner. Then, after a short pause, she added a few more details. I sat there and listened.
Two sentences turned into four, which turned into eight. The amount of words that poured from her mouth were astonishing, considering how quiet and reserved she usually is. Looking into her eyes, I knew she was upset. I knew she was exhausted and weary. She was torn between being a mother to her children, a caretaker for her ill husband, and the main provider for her family. Nodding my head through her concerns, I just sat there and listened.
I caught bits and pieces of each sentence she said while simultaneously berating myself for not being exceedingly fluent in the language. Pauses in the conversation came every so often and I held my breath, wondering if I missed a preceding question while trying to understand the two sentences before that. Is it my turn? Is she waiting for me to reply, to give insight or wisdom? Just as my lips began to part open, she continued spilling her thoughts out to me. I exhaled a sigh of relief and let her keep the conversation going while I attempted to translate in my mind at a trailing-behind-speed-walk type of pace. All I seemed to be able to do was just sit there and listen.
Our conversation came to an end as my children woke up and began persistently making their requests for the morning. My helper shared a few more final thoughts as she made her way to the sink to wash the dishes, picking up right where she left off.
I carried on with my morning but my mind kept going back to the conversation. I couldn’t help but feel like such a dud. She might as well have been pouring her heart out to a stuffed animal. My understanding of everything she said was passable, at best. Maybe if I had been able to understand more of what she was telling me, I could have offered more to the conversation than just my nodding head. But since, at any given moment, I was catching about forty percent of what she was telling me, I said nothing. I just sat there and listened.
We weren’t able to have another free moment to talk that day. While we went about our separate tasks, I continued to scold myself for not saying something. Surely I should have said something. My faithful and hardworking helper was pouring her heart out to me and I hardly said a word back. She probably regretted even bothering to communicate with me about such a heavy topic, and I certainly couldn’t blame her for feeling that way. A whole lot of help I was.
She finished up the dishes and ironed the clothes. She put away the folded laundry and then grabbed her belongings as she made her way to the door.
“I’ll be praying for you and for the Lord to give you strength during these difficult times,” I said before she walked out the door. She smiled and thanked me. But this time, her smile wasn’t faint. Her face almost seemed refreshed.
It was in that moment I realized, maybe she never needed me to say anything during our conversation. Maybe she had already received enough unsolicited advice from her friends and family whenever she brought these same frustrations and struggles up in conversations. Maybe others jumped in on her sentences, eager to give a response, and kept her from sharing her thoughts in full. Maybe her sole desire and need for that moment was for someone with an empathetic ear and an understanding heart to just sit there and listen to her.
I once heard a story about an elderly woman who lived overseas. She was never able to get the hang of the language, but that didn’t keep her from making herself available for conversation with the locals.
Eventually she moved away, never having mastered the language. But when the locals spoke of her, they recalled the warm, friendly smile she wore on her face and how she was always a good listener when they chatted with her.
Her two most notable characteristics had nothing to do with her fluency in the language. Fluent or not, she showed up each day with the tools she had in her belt and allowed the Lord to be sufficient where she was lacking.
I’ve always known the importance of learning the language of my host country — so I can speak to others and they can understand me. But in the process of learning how to speak, I’ve learned an equally valuable skill — the importance of listening so I can understand others. I don’t mean merely for the sake of acquiring new vocabulary words and I’m not even limiting this to conversations happening in a second language. I’m talking about resisting the urge to always chime in. I’m talking about taking the time to understand a person more deeply and allowing others to express the thoughts in their head and the feelings of their heart more completely.
These days I’m trying to let those pauses in the conversations linger for a little longer before “imparting my wisdom.” I think there are times when I can add far more to the conversation by not adding anything at all.
Sometimes I just need to sit there and listen.