Sitting at in a treatment room, a patient sits before me, sharing the situation which led them to seek medical attention. As they describe their symptoms, I check their vital signs, pull out my stethoscope and listen.
Hear their breath sounds on the right side, then the left, along the lung fields. Discern the steady rhythm of lub-dub along the different regions of the heart, then the gurgles of their belly.
It may sound simple, just listen-yet it’s a difficult skill to gain as a new nurse.
Patient after patient, you assess, diligently and purposefully. If you have eight patients per shift, and three shifts a week, that’s almost a hundred times a month you’re listening. Many of your patients will have normal sounding hearts and lungs, but as the months go on, you move from a fledgling ability to increasingly catch the differences.
The teenager with symptoms of a bladder infection, but when you hear her lungs have crackles, she gets an xray that also reveals a pneumonia.
The man experiencing chest pain has a rubbing sound over his heart; his tests indicate pericarditis.
The child with a fever who has a new heart murmur is sent to the children’s hospital to see a cardiologist.
These signs alert us to potential problems.
But you may never know it, unless you’ve learnt to listen well.
Why is Listening Important?
The act of listening – it is a verb after all – means giving our attention to someone (or something) else, to consider it, even seeking to understand. It’s not merely the act of putting on a stethoscope to hear the sounds - my kids enjoy playing doctor and listening on each other - it’s adding that pivotal piece of wisdom to understand what the sounds mean for the patient.
These cultural moments find us placing a lot of emphasis on sharing our words, particularly in the form of our opinions on social media. I wonder if we begin to do so much telling, we forget about listening and abandon it as a skill of the past.
The Gospel Reminds Us Life Is About People
As I care for patients at the hospital or clients in the counselling room, I see that people just want to be heard. It’s not even about the words or opinions, it’s about another human hearing and seeking to understand their pain and their experience.
This is empathy.
You’ll know when you’ve done it because often they’ll tell you, “thank-you for listening.”
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus responds with loving God first, then loving your neighbour (Mark 12:31). Later he reminds his disciples that “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Then, as he prays to the Lord asking “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23).
Love and unity are characteristics of the church, because these qualities reflect the person and work of Christ. People matter and if we’re going to be those who build up the church, it means taking the time and effort to care well for those around us.
Scripture Reminds Us It’s About Our Own Sanctification
Listening is a lot harder than telling.
Things we want to say are hard to hold in, like dropping baking soda in vinegar, it wants to fizz it’s way out. But we’re admonished to, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Where speaking and emotional responses are typically our first impulse, we’re told that should be the opposite.
Not only that, but “a fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov 18:2). These are serious considerations for our character during difficult times laden with differing points of view.
But do we have the strength of character, the maturity, to serve and love others well? To push past ourselves to look to the needs of others. To put the Lord first in our worship, rather than focusing on the things of this world, which will always divide.
There’s great sorrow in watching the divisiveness among our churches and our families. As I remember my early days of nursing listening to the sounds of hearts and lungs, I had to intentionally and patiently take time to learn this new skill, because my goal was to become more capable of understanding what was going on within a patient's body.
May our goal be to become more like Christ, as a flock of sheep moving together to follow their Good Shepherd.