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Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

Wednesday December 7 2016

Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

“Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart. If we could just remember this, I think there would be a lot more compassion and tolerance in the world.”—Frank Warren

This quotation makes me ask myself three questions:
1. When people tell me their secrets, do I listen well?
2. Do I keep confidentiality?
3. When I suspect that someone has a painful secret, do I respect their right not to tell me about it while still treating them with compassion?

I’ll write about the questions in reverse order. My third question highlights a difficult balancing act. We can use our imagination too little or too much when we think about people’s lives. If we use our imagination too little, we don’t put ourselves in the place of people who have experienced difficult things, and compassion is difficult or impossible. I see imagination and compassion as closely related. Both need to be consciously cultivated.

However, if we imagine too much, we might read something into someone’s life that simply isn’t or wasn’t there. Imagine that you have a grumpy colleague, and it seems likely to you that this person was sexually abused as a child. But maybe not, and the person doesn’t seem inclined to tell you about the past. Frank Warren seems to be advocating compassion whether or not we know the other person’s story, simply because most people have stories that would break our hearts.

Regarding confidentiality, my second question above, don’t forget that gossip is listed twice in the New Testament in lists of sins (Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:2). Proverbs 11:13 uses the language of “trustworthy in spirit” for the kind of person I want to be: “A gossipgoes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence” (NRSV). Some other translations of that verse in Proverbs use “faithful in spirit,” and The Message uses “a person of integrity.”

Gossip is one of the easiest sins to engage in because so often gossip seems innocent. And of course, talking about other people’s needs can play a role in caring. For Christians, the boundary between gossip and sharing a prayer request is pretty blurry. In addition, the deliciousness of gossip plays such a big part in what we call “news,” so we become numb to the consequences of it.

People’s stories belong to them, not to us. If we want people to honor us with their stories, we need to honor the people who tell the stories and let them decide with whom to share the story.

And that brings me to the topic of listening, my first question above. I’ve written so many posts and articles about listening, and I’ll paste in a list below. Good listening skills really do help people talk through events that might have become secrets with the passage of time. And those secrets usually have less power and become less heart-breaking when talked about in the presence of a good listener. Careful, respectful and compassionate listening conveys love.

Frank Warren, in the quotation above, is asking for us to remember that people have painful secrets whether we know what they are or not. He seems to be saying that when we remember the presence of those secrets, we will have more compassion and tolerate differences with more love. This seems like a good idea in our politically polarized world.

(Next week: a beautiful benediction that encourages us to believe God has a purpose in our being where we already are. Illustration, "Paihia Beach," by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Posts and articles on listening:

Listening past the noise
Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others      
John Perkins listened     
good listeners are detectives, not tennis players   

a game that nurtures good listening
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality



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