by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

The phone rang at 10 pm. I must admit, I was irritated. Until I heard her trembling voice.

“Mice. I have mice in the apartment and I don’t know what to do, please tell me what I should do!”

A fellow parishioner at church, she was clearly upset, having found mice droppings all over her apartment, and dealing with a super who would not call a pest control company and blamed her for the problem.

I was still not sure why a 10 pm phone call to me was warranted, and how I could practically help her get rid of the mice.

As she continued talking, I could sense in her tone what lay below the surface problem of finding mice in her apartment. She was new to the United States, living alone with her three children while her husband worked abroad. She was navigating a new system, often alone, and having never experienced mice in her home country, she was scared to death of what could happen to her and her children.

“I almost fainted when I found two of them in the trap,” she said, her voice trembling. “I called pest control companies, and they said since I live in an apartment, it has to be the super that arranges this with them, because if there are mice in my apartment there are mice all over the building. I called the super and offered to pay for the pest control, but he said he has no time to deal with this, and I am the only tenant who has complained about this problem. What do I do?”

Underneath those words I could hear these feelings: I am alone and don’t have my husband here with me to help. The super is accusing me of being dirty, probably because I speak with an accent and am not from this country, and he doesn’t want to help me with anything. I don’t know who to turn to, or what to do next, and I wish I could just leave.

I echoed her frustration with her super and eventually advised her to call the landlord, and if the landlord does not do anything, to file a complaint with the county board of health. “I called you because you know how this country works,” she said, “and who to turn to about these things.” I then listened as she continued to rant about how horrible it all was, and how those mice could possibly have entered her apartment, and how the super even suggested that the mice got into her home through her suitcases from abroad!

When we finished our conversation, she had calmed down considerably. In addition, my initial annoyance had given way to feeling uplifted. I couldn’t get rid of her mice, but I could offer her a listening ear to a mom’s fears for her children as they struggle to thrive in a new environment. It wasn’t about the mice, but about someone to vent to who would not judge her.

I felt uplifted when I let go of my own annoyances to actually hear what was going on in someone else’s life: to be a listening ear, to offer a shoulder to cry on, to lend a helping hand even when it is inconvenient or even uncomfortable. This simple encounter taught me to take the time to listen, even at a late hour, and know that this moment of listening gave someone else some peace.


Here are some resources for further reading about listening:

This recent article from the Harvard Business Review, What Great Listeners Actually Do.” This is a very useful article that talks about some recent research on listening. Read this helpful tidbit: “Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.”

Thomas Hart’s The Art of Christian Listening is a beautifully written book for those who are ever put in the position of being asked to listen. “Listening,” he writes, “is not always easy. It takes time, and the time might be inconvenient besides. It demands really being for the other during that period, fully present and attentive, one’s own needs and concerns set aside. This is exacting. Listening might mean being afflicted with the most profound sense of helplessness, having the springs of sorrow touched, seeing one’s dearest convictions called painfully into question by the experience and testimony of another. The person may not be attractive, might be telling a dull and too oft repeated tale, might be making mountains out of molehills, might be demanding and even manipulative. These are the hazards. Nevertheless there comes to me a human being whom God created and loves. There comes a sister or brother for whom Christ died (Rm 14:15). There enters a suffering fellow pilgrim. The first thing one consents to do is to welcome and listen. It is an act of love.”

David Isay’s Listening is An Act of Love is a collection of stories from the StoryCorps project. In it he shares how powerful it is for ordinary people to share their stories and truly feel heard, with a collection of some of the most beloved stories shared from 2003 to 2007. “These stories,” he writes, “are a reminder that if we spent a little less time listening to the divisive radio and TV talk shows and a little more time listening to each other, we would be a better, more thoughtful, and more compassionate nation.”




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(c) Phoebe Farag 2016