I am a repository of people’s secrets.
Acquaintances, work colleague, church sort-of friends, people I barely know: they sit down with me and then they start confessing. I hear about broken marriages, infidelities, griefs, work troubles, job searches, all manner of scandals.
I don’t ask for them. I don’t seek them out. They just arrive at my doorstep, unasked for and unsought.
This has made me the subject of occasional teasing at work. A colleague once posited that my “resting pleasant face” makes me seem available to people. A few people have indicated that my patience might be the cause, or the fact that I am a locked vault when it comes to secrets.
My mother has this experience too. In fact, we often bond over it. We know that we’re perceived as “grounding forces”—the stable sort of people who are very good at listening, very good at refraining from judgment, very good at offering advice. It is a blessing and a curse, but the more this happens to me, the more it becomes clear:
People desperately need care and compassion and a listening ear.
Right now, so many people are hurting. And not just the usual suspects—the lonely or bereaved or suffering people we tend to turn our ministries and hearts to in times of need. I mean everyone. The pandemic has landed like an eighty-ton weight on most everyone I know, and the stress fractures are beginning to show.
Recently, on a walk near where I work, I watched a fascinating phenomenon.
A gentleman stood near his bike on the middle of a busy city sidewalk. He was wearing his exercise clothes and a nice back pack, and his bike was bright and new. And he clearly needed to know what time it was. As people passed by, he would step a bit in front of them and make a gesture to initiate a conversation. “Excuse me—”
Sometimes he wouldn’t even get out that much. He’d just manage the first syllable, or stretch his hand out.
Everyone passed him by.
Most people didn’t even see his outstretched hand. They were looking at their phones or listening to music. One man walked by carrying a fully open laptop. Those who did see sped up their steps and kept their eyes straight ahead, pretending he wasn’t there—they were clearly headed somewhere and didn’t want to be interrupted. Others acknowledged him, but shook their hands and waved him away, as though he was trying to sell them something.
“Ma’am!” he said desperately when I approached, likely because I met his eyes. “Do you have the time? I’m supposed to meet a friend nearby, but I left my phone at home.”
I told him the time. He smiled, thanked me profusely, and biked off.
But watching him, watching the world around him, made me think about what it must be like to reach out to someone—how hard it is, even when you’re trying desperately to make a plain request for what you need, when the world is busy and occupied and simply passes you by.
Hi, people say helplessly and awkwardly to the air, this pandemic thing with the school and kids and work is really overwhelming me and I just need someone to talk to—
My marriage, says someone else, is falling apart, and I can’t tell my family but I’m hurting—
I’m just so stressed and work has me overwhelmed and I can’t cope—
I’m taking care of my mom and my kids and it’s just too much—
Here’s the thing: it’s not a talent. There’s no magical smile or personality or approach I have that brings people to my doors with their secrets and problems. Mostly, it’s that I keep my door open at all. That I ask how people are…and then ask follow-up questions, if I hear uncertainty or sadness lurking behind a cheerful tone. That I don’t immediately jump into talking about whatever I have in mind to discuss. That I meet people’s eyes.
I just make myself available. That’s it.
And that’s ministry. Nourishing and clothing the poor can pertain to the spirit as much as the body. And I assure you that a lot of the most well-heeled people around in the nicest clothes and the most material possessions are starving for compassion just as much as those in rags.
When our home was being built a while back, the plumber dropped by to do some work while I happened to be present. He got to talking, and in the progress of our conversation said, “You’d not believe what goes on in some of them houses.” He yanked his thumb in the direction of one of the more affluent subdivisions. And then he told me a series of horror stories he’d witnessed in his work: cars being repossessed, heat being turned off, marriages crumbling, child abuse. “Nobody’d believe it ‘cause they live so nice.”
Everywhere, people are suffering.
Christ made himself available—available enough he was thronged in the streets, available enough that women could grab hold of his robe, available enough that his disciples felt comfortable chatting with him, available enough that at times it became necessary to flee from the crowds. He listened to stories, perceived motives, picked up on the intentions of the heart. He prompted Zacchaeus out of a sycamore tree. He saw people.
Watch for others. Learn to perceive need. Make space for conversations to start. Here are five ways to do so immediately:
1. Get your head out of your devices. Look at people, not screens, when they pass by or when you are walking somewhere. Lift your head to acknowledge people and tear your eyes away from the computer when they come into your office.
2. Cultivate approachability. Meet people’s gazes, when you can. Smile…or at least avoid scowling. Keep your office door open for a little while. Reach out to people you haven’t heard from. Make sure people know—not from words, from actions—that your literal and metaphorical door is open. Don’t act dismissive, even if you’re being interrupted.
3. Pay attention and ask questions. Ask about their family, their job, their day to day. Really listen to the answers. Mind the small things: the awkward laughs, the trailing pauses, the headshakes and gestures that show vulnerability, sadness, hesitancy.
4. Make time. Do not look at your calendar. Do not keep checking your phone. You may not realize it, but all of these things give a signal: I’m busy, and you are in the middle of everything I have going on. Make people feel like a priority. And if you are busy, be honest: “You know what? I have a report due at noon, but I really want to make some time to talk with you. Are you free at 2?”
5. Just listen. Don’t always give in to the temptation to offer advice, fix a situation, or jump into action. Just let people talk until they’re done talking. Affirm their needs and their hurt. Tell them you care and are sorry they’re in pain. Ask them what you can do to help. Your presence is the point—not your ability to fix the situation.
One of the greatest ministries you can provide right now is simply to be there for those who might need you. God will work out the details later—just allow people the opportunity to reach out to you, and you might be surprised by what results.
So many people are aching to see an open door.