An Indigenous Lesson in Listening from Alaska
I keep the above quote from Douglas Steere, the Quaker, in my office, and I read it before every meeting I have, especially with directees. (It comes from his book, On Listening to Another).
The first time I ever read this line in school for spiritual direction, I copied it by hand and sent it to my best friend with a note that said, “This is what you do for me; you listen me.”
I hope you all have friends like that, someone who listens you.
When I was living in Alaska, I worked for a think tank called Commonwealth North. (In case you’re wondering, I was a note-taker, not a thinker.) The year I worked with them, they were meeting to discuss the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. A series of experts in anthropology, sociology, economics, public policy, wildlife preservation, and the like met with the group each week to discuss the impact of this legislation, which in part, meant that Alaska would never have reservations like the rest of the lower 48. It’s an interesting system and not without its own serious problems. But I’ll never forget one sociologist who visited our group to speak about some of the common practices of the various Native American cultures in Alaska.
He told us that in some indigenous populations, when one of the tribe suffered a particular trauma, the whole tribe would be gathered together in a circle, and the person who had suffered the trauma was invited to share his or her experience with the first person in the circle. When they were finished, they moved on to the next, and then the next, and the next, just as long as it took. They went around the circle telling their story—until they were finished, until they were listened through the trauma.
In my mind’s eye I pictured each one in the circle being given a tiny share of the trauma-teller’s suffering, no more burdensome than a rose petal. And by spreading it out, carrying it together as a tribal community, it eventually dissipated altogether.
That anecdote tells me something tremendously important about listening, only listening—without feedback, without commentary, without judgement, without critique, without correction or editing or advice-giving or one-upmanship. In a culture where so many seem to be clamoring to launch their own talk show, to be a listener seems ridiculous and almost certainly weak.
And it made me think of the Blessed Sacrament: forever silent, forever listening, forever available to hear our stories again and again and again.
We all know what it means not to be listened to, to have the sacredness of our story trampled over by the well-meaning, the distracted, or the careless. God forgive me for my tramplings—they are too many. But I am grateful to be learning that listening to one another is in its way a participation in honoring the sacredness of the soul before me; it is to kneel at God’s altar in awe for the unique and unrepeatable person he has created.
Let’s do better to listen one another.
Heavenly Father, in the cacophony that is human suffering and strife, teach me the poise and stillness of the Blessed Sacrament, and like the silent Christ of the Holy Eucharist, to bear witness to the sanctity of every person I encounter.
This post is also published in The Catholic Spirit, the online home of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Elizabeth Kelly is an award-winning speaker and the author of six books, including Jesus Approaches, What Contemporary Women Can Learn About Healing, Freedom, and Joy from the Women of the New Testament. She is trained as a spiritual director in the Ignatian exercises and leads retreats with a particular focus on helping women to flourish in their faith. She teaches in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (MN). Her website is: www.emkbooks.com.