Can Just Listening Change A Friend's Life?

05/30/2013 05:36 EDT | Updated 07/30/2013 05:12 EDT
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You never know when you can make a difference. I know several people who dedicate their lives to making a difference, by working for philanthropic organizations, volunteering at soup kitchens, and organizing clothing drives. But not all of us are built that way, and that's alright. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round. I may one day put on my "Save the World" hat, but it's not on now. I'm not ashamed of it; I'm a dedicated mom, write occasional checks to my favourite charities, and do little things to help people, one person at a time.

We should never undervalue the power of the small gesture. Holding the door for someone, helping a stranger with heavy packages, waving someone else into the last good parking space, are examples of little things that reassure people that the world isn't all bad. As it turns out, even leaving errands undone to pick up the phone when a friend calls can make a difference. A big difference.

Not long ago, my friend Mary called, seemingly out of the blue. (We live 400 miles apart and communicate mostly by email.) It had been hard to get a clear picture of Mary's life lately. Her husband, Tom, sounded impossible to please, her autistic son exhausted her, their new house was almost furnished. Overall, she seemed content with her lot, despite the challenges. I was surprised to see her name on the caller ID, so I put down my purse and keys, and picked up the phone.

Mary asked if I had a few minutes. "Sure," I replied. The conversation actually took an hour. Mary was ready to tell me the whole truth of her situation, because she needed my advice -- or so she thought. What she really wanted was permission: Tom had invited all of their friends for yet another barbecue, and she didn't want to be there. She couldn't bear to put on her forced smile and pretend to be happy, and watch her husband be charming to everyone except her. Not again.

She wanted to permission to escape! At least for one night, to make a statement that she was sick of the way he treated her, and that she would no longer pretend that he was a perfect husband. She'd never told me, but Tom not only drinks too much, he also berates Mary when she needs support, avoids her when she needs love, and stifles her when she needs to express herself. Over time she learned to cower and hide, until her voice became as faint and tentative as the yip of a puppy locked too long in the cellar. Now she wanted to speak up, but she needed a friend to tell her to do it.

Needless to say, I told her to pack her overnight bag immediately and drive with her son to her sister's house -- which she did. When she returned home the next day, Tom agreed to marriage counseling. Mary began individual counseling too, and slowly relearned how to exercise her voice by sharing the truth with someone who would listen. A few months later, she called her old college friend Sally and asked to visit. "Of course!" Sally replied.

Like me, Sally had no idea the impact she was about to have on Mary's life. She thought she was just hosting an old friend, organizing little get-togethers with a few people from their alma mater. For Mary, this was a life-altering weekend, not just because she had fun, but because nobody yelled at her! Nobody told her she was bossy, stupid or incompetent. Her old friends still thought she was funny, intelligent, and interesting! Was that possible? Could she actually be someone different than the person Tom described?

Embracing that magical possibility, Mary returned with new hope. Her therapist and friends are supporting her as she begins to prepare for the day she asks for a separation or divorce. She's getting her car repaired. She's applying for part-time jobs, buying new clothes, and building her own credit. She has given up on trying to change Tom, who refuses to work the marriage. One day soon, she will begin her life anew, knowing that she deserves to be treated with respect and that she has friends who love her.

Sally and I played important roles in Mary's life, simply by being there. In this day of instant communication, it is easy to forget that not every conversation fits into two hundred characters or less. Not all emotional needs can be met by posting messages on Facebook. Email doesn't always cut it.

I'm old enough to remember phones with cords. You know what was great about the cords? They didn't reach very far. When a friend called, you couldn't be walking the dog, doing laundry, or putting groceries into your cart at the same time. You actually had to listen. Give it a try, and see what a difference you can make.

Celebrating the BFT (Best Friend Text)