A pastor noticed that an elderly parishioner had stopped attending his services. The parishioner evidently felt he was no longer noticed or loved so he simply stopped coming.
The pastor gave it some prayerful thought and paid a visit to the man on a cold and snowy day. He knocked on the door. The man opened the door, and they had a cordial greeting, but after that, neither said a word.
The man motioned for the pastor take a chair and join him by the fire. After a while, the pastor picked up the fire prod and began poking at the coals. He moved a glowing coal away from the fire. They both sat watching as the coal lost its heat and eventually stopped glowing. Several minutes went by in silence. Then, the pastor pulled the coal back to the edge of the fire where they watched it rekindle and glow again, adding heat and luster to the pile. The pastor put the prod down, tipped his hat, walked to the door and let himself out.
The following Sabbath, the man returned to the congregation. The pastor welcomed him by name and asked what brought him back. The man said, “Pastor, at my home by the fire, you gave the best sermon I’ve ever heard you give without saying a word.”
This story, which I recently heard, is directly relatable to the epidemic of anxiety and depression in our world today, especially among our youth. Feelings of anxiety and depression often lead to isolation. The healing process is a two-way street. Those who notice the dying ember must reach for it and bring it back into the fire. Those who are the dying ember must allow themselves to be open to authentic outreach and be willing to be moved.
The question is how to begin this outreach. One of the more evident answers is to do as the pastor did and not say a word — just listen and be there for each other.
In his new book “Happy Mind, Happy Life,” Dr. Rangan Chatterjee articulates 10 rules for listening to others. Among them: be nonjudgmental, be curious, embrace silence, actively listen without interruption and have no specific attachment to the outcome of the conversation.
It’s also important to listen to ourselves and to surround ourselves with people in select circles of trust, as Parker J. Palmer describes in his book “A Hidden Wholeness.” Not surprisingly, Palmer notes both the need for companionship and community in our journey, as well as being able to listen in silence for our inner voice. He writes “… We all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution or leader.”
Becoming acquainted with our inner voice is essential. So is finding community. The journey toward inner truth, Palmer says, is too taxing to be made solo and too deeply hidden to be traveled without company. Community is needed to find the courage to venture into alien lands — a new life of fulfillment.
For me, finding my inner voice requires peace. In recent travels, I had a chance to compare total chaos in a busy city to the absolute quiet of a secluded lake. The city was a cacophony of noise with masses of people like salmon swimming upstream. At the lake, I could sit and hear myself breathe as I viewed the large expanses of mountains and water. The silence around me brought the peace I was seeking, and my inner voice began to speak to me. The trusted friends who were with me were kind enough to watch me breathe without speaking until I was ready to reveal some of what my inner voice was telling me. I extended the same courtesy to them. This became a beautifully healing experience.
In all my research and lived experiences dealing with these issues, I’ve found a formula that works for me in lowering my anxiety and limiting bouts of depression:
• Find a place for peaceful silence without being too isolated; a space to hear the inner voice guiding your next steps.
• Be with trusted friends and family who have the skills to listen (sometimes without saying a word), and enjoy the warmth of their figurative fires to keep the embers of hope alive.
• Practice the art of listening as you figuratively reach for the fire poker and gather in the dying embers to ignite hope.
Evolution requires reflection. I hope as we ponder the story of the dying ember, we will commit to being better listeners and discover ways to be reignited and help others reignite as well.
Steven A. Hitz is a co-founder of Launching Leaders Worldwide, a nonprofit based in Utah that provides young adults with tools for personal leadership and faith, with participants from 72 countries. He is the author of “Launching Leaders: An Empowering Journey for a New Generation” and “Entrepreneurial Foundations for Twenty and Thirty Somethings.”