Ylisse C. Bess: Learning to listen in a time of heartache

iStock / Kev Klopper

A hospital chaplain reflects on the core skill of her vocation: listening. In this time, it’s a skill that all Christian leaders can benefit from cultivating.

Good morning heartache, you old gloomy sight
Good morning heartache, thought we said goodbye last night
I turned and tossed until it seemed you had gone
But here you are with the dawn.
-- 
From “Good Morning Heartache”

I have a picture in my mind of the scene as Billie Holiday sings this song: she wakes up and, wearing her bathrobe, walks into her kitchen, makes two cups of coffee and takes a seat.

She sets one coffee in front of herself and places the other in front of an empty chair. She looks at heartache and says, “Sit down.”

In an intimate place -- her home -- she meets her agony. In a space even more intimate -- her kitchen -- she offers a seat. The kitchen: where she presses her hair, cooks her food, gets midnight snacks. Where family and friends gather.

As I have matured in my ministry as a hospital chaplain, I have grown to appreciate “Good Morning Heartache.” What intrigues me most is that Holiday invites the listeners to listen to themselves, to make room for their feelings and to be fully known.

The song doesn’t promise an easy way out, as we often do when we talk to someone going through a hard time. Holiday sings a pleasant greeting to the bitter companion of heartache and lends it her ear.

Heartache has shown up for us as the pandemic of COVID-19. The pandemic has touched the most intimate parts of our lives: our bodies, homes, relationships, rituals and practices of faith. Each day when we wake up in quarantine, we greet our heartache.

Many people have responded by taking action. Some redistributed resources to meet the needs where social safety nets should have been. Others curated virtual spiritual spaces for worship and study, produced words of hope or critique through sermons or op-eds, shared artistic skills and talents, or upheld the inherent worth and dignity of all people through demonstrations.

These actions arise from heartache’s presence, compelling us to do: to demand and create and speak and take up space. But in our doing, we often forget -- or think we don’t have time -- to listen.

Listening is at the core of my vocation as a chaplain, and I think it’s a skill that all leaders could benefit from cultivating during this time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted my work from in-person spiritual care and emotional support to telechaplaincy. Still, much of my role as a chaplain continues to be listening deeply, facilitating as people explore their experiences, feelings and attitudes.

I recently had a phone call with a patient who, despite a loving network of family and friends, expressed deep gratitude for a listening ear. This patient was surprised that I wasn’t peddling shallow hope but rather was willing and able to listen to the impact of the unknown in these unprecedented times.

Doing in chaplaincy requires an awareness of self and environment; it requires deep listening, witnessing and being with. The acts of listening and witnessing may seem simple, but there is nothing simple about heartache or being present to it. Still, the seemingly simple acts are the necessary skills for this time.

This goes for myself as well. I find that the more I take time to practice pausing and listening to myself and the more I practice doing as being, the better I am at being present and listening to others.

For the past year, knowing I can’t pause or quiet everything around me, I have been intentionally practicing pausing and quieting myself to listen for the guidance of the Spirit. I’ve been taking moments to listen -- to my body, my mind and my spirit.

Now more than ever I feel the call to listen. Listen, as in be attentive to bodily aches. Listen, as in observe what’s happening around me. Listen, as in ask, “How does my body respond to where I am and what’s happening?”

Are there tears? Let them flow. Cry on. Am I speechless? Be in awe. Don’t limit experience to words. This self-centering extends to my work as a hospital chaplain.

It has helped me understand that the gift of Holiday’s song -- her greeting to heartache -- is that in deciding to exist with heartache, recognize heartache, acknowledge heartache and all the ways that it impacts us, we recognize ourselves as worth seeing. We recognize the fullness and depth of ourselves.

I think of the story of Job. Job loses his family, livelihood and health. When his three friends learn of his troubles, they come to console him and witness his pain: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13 NRSV).

I think of Jesus going to the garden of Gethsemane with the disciples to sit and pray. In his pain, he asks only for their watchful presence: “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me” (Matthew 26:38 NASB).

In both stories, the invitation is to be present and refrain from speaking to circumstances where words fall short. It’s when Job’s friends speak that he is disquieted; it’s when Jesus’ disciples can’t be present that he is discontented.

During this pandemic many will know heartache intimately and heartache will sit at our tables more times than we can count.

Listen to yourself and to the aches, giving them room to exist for as long as they are present while also trusting and believing that trouble doesn’t last always. Listen then to others. Be present to yourself and then to others. Be patient with yourself and then with others.

In a world of heartache that refuses to leave us alone, remember that you are resilient, that you are worth being recognized at every stage of your faith, even in grief and heartache.

It is because God witnesses all of me that I too am able to witness and listen.