There was one seat left at the table at the food court by the time I got there. I slid in and looked across at the man opposite. I’d seen him earlier that day. From Adelaide I think he was, and he was here at the conference with his wife. He was eating noodles. He introduced himself. Alex. Few years older than me. Smiling eyes. Spiky hair standing up on his head.
We started chatting about “what we did for a living” and what had brought us here. He had his own accountancy practice, he told me, and had enjoyed it for many years. He described going in to work on Monday mornings and greeting his staff, the pleasure and satisfaction it gave him, and the atmosphere in the office, the friendship, the camaraderie.
I was entranced. I hadn’t experienced work as a source of pleasure and satisfaction for many years, if ever, and was agog to hear it actually existed. It was like hearing a strange tale from a foreign land. I lapped it up, urging him on, tell me more, hoping his “secret” would rub off on me.
At that time, I had a big story going about my work history. The story went like this – “I’m intelligent and highly educated, and yet I haven’t had jobs that are a match for what I can provide. It must mean there’s something wrong with me” – and I was continually trying to work out what that something was. In fact, you could say that was my main employment: trying to work out what was wrong with me :)
After Alex spoke about his business, the conversation turned to what I did for a living and, as I did in those days, I eagerly launched into my “tragic” tale.
I must have started with an early experience of work, and after I had spoken for some time, Alex asked, “And then what?”
I went on to another experience and spoke about that. Again, when I paused, Alex asked, “And then what?”
I started on another episode, and again, after some time had passed and I had reached some pause in the story Alex asked, “And then what?”
We went on this way, with me fully engaged in my well-worn story and Alex going on eating noodles and every so often asking his question until something started to dawn on me.
I started to get that Alex was really listening to me. He was listening to me as I’d never been listened to before. What was he doing? I couldn’t work it out. There he was, calmly eating his noodles in silence, no murmurs, no grunts of assent, no expression on his face, no sympathetic nods or glances or noises. Just, every so often, his question.
I felt I could say what I liked and Alex would get it. I felt like Alex was providing me a space in which I could relax and take my time and say my story, and could be however I wanted to be. It was like encountering a vast field or pool in which I could lie and swim and float and be at ease.
Alex was listening and adding no agreement. There are dimensions in listening that far exceed questions of sound and non-sound, speaking and non-speaking, and with Alex I discovered this dimension and it was an extraordinary experience in my life.
I can also hear when another human being has discovered it too and I hear it in the story I published some time ago between former Harvard theologian, Henri Nouwen, and Adam, the disabled man Henri cared for at Jean Vanier’s L’Arche.
What was so amazing about all this was the very gradual realisation that Adam was really there for me, listening with his whole being, and offering me a safe space to be. I wasn’t expecting that, and though I do not express it well, it really happened … Sometimes when I was anxious, irritated or frustrated about something that wasn’t happening well enough, or fast enough, Adam came to mind, and seemed to call me back to the stillness at the eye of the cyclone.
What Alex provided me that day allowed me to complete my past in relation to work, and the story I had about work has completely vanished.
Nowadays, I have my own business and I’m engaged in doing things that matter to me. Every day, I experience the pleasure and satisfaction Alex spoke of, and I understand this pleasure and satisfaction has its source in how Alex listened me that day.