Listening: Connecting the Dots

4269947837_8c38b04b1f_oYou’ve seen the typical kids’ connect-the-dot picture. No surprise waiting there. The headlights, grill, and tires are already drawn in so that tracing from number to number simply makes the outline of the car. Anyone a few years past preschool could see that coming.

But have you seen the dot-to-dot books for those who want a challenge? For instance, there’s Thomas Pavitte’s 1000 Dot-to-Dot Cities, including 20 intricately mapped-out images of global locations, each with 1,000 numbered dots. And there’s David Koehler and Adam Turner’s Extreme Dot-to-Dot: All around the World, with 32 puzzles of global sights, some with more than 1,400 dots.

When it comes to connecting the dots, sometimes the end point, and the path to get there, is clear before you even begin. Sometimes it’s more complicated.

If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I often write about the importance of listening—especially listening to those who are grieving—and it probably makes sense to you. But if you’re new here, you might wonder why a site about cross-cultural issues gets so far off track. Allow me to connect the dots.

•1 First of all, it’s important for us to listen well to hear the stories of those around us and those far away. Storytelling forms a bridge between people and cultures, and without opening our ears and engaging our minds and our hearts, we can’t cross that bridge.

•2 But there’s another part to listening, and it begins with the recognition that crossing cultures involves loss. As I have often quoted her, Third Culture Kid expert Ruth Van Reken talks about the losses that come with transition:

Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, “What did you lose?” Because where there’s loss, there’s grief.

•3 Dr. Steve Sweatman is president and CEO of Mission Training International, an organization that trains and counsels Christian cross-cultural workers and their families. He says that the call to take the gospel to other cultures

inevitably is a call to sacrifice, to losses, to things that you will have to leave behind or give up.

These losses can be concrete or abstract. They all should be grieved in a healthy way.

•4 But according to Van Reken, TCKs and others are often thwarted in their ability to grieve healthily:

[A]nother reason many TCKs can’t work through their various losses is simply that well-meaning people (including parents!) often try to encourage TCKs before they comfort them. There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.

•5 Those who are grieving need good, empathetic listeners. A Lifecare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief is not alone in saying that

The most important thing you can offer someone who is grieving is your ability to listen without judgment.

•6 Having a desire to be heard is certainly true of missionaries. In one survey, when asked what they wanted from their sending agencies, they gave “someone to listen to me” as their top answer.

•7 German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that listening is the “first service” that Christians owe each other:

We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening.

•8 And Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen writes,

[W]hen we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

So there’s the completed picture. When I find something that reminds me of the need to listen, I think of cross-cultural workers and their families. That’s how the dots connect for me, and I want to share it as a reminder to us all.

[illusration: “Connect-the-Dots,” by Whitney Waller, used under a Creative Commons license]

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