TRUE FRIENDS REALLY LISTEN

TRUE FRIENDS REALLY LISTEN

My grandmother always told me that, in order to have a friend, you must be a friend. This couldn’t be more true especially in the past year and a half with the enforced isolation under the multiple (and often confusing) pandemic-induced orders.

Some of us settled into the new norm with little more than a cursory reluctance. Others have suffered greatly as their need for constant socialization was jeopardized. The entire exercise of self-isolation challenged the concept of friendship and what it really means to be a friend.

As a writer, I have managed to maintain my sanity through the written word. I’m not much of a talker, but I do like to write. Here are a few links to some of my short pieces of writing:

Is There Something Else You Can Write About?

Look, Don’t Touch!

How I Launched My Food Writing Career

And, of course, my books are listed here

However, even with my daily regimen of writing exercises, I have felt the weight of the world on my shoulders, so to speak. My journals, letter-writing (the old-fashioned put in the mailbox with a postage stamp type of letter), occasional telephone calls, and virtual meets add another dimension to my reaching beyond the confines of my home. It was an ordeal for all of us to follow the rules and guidelines and stay home and to use mask and social distance on the occasional outing for essentials.

Just like everyone else, I missed the social contact. My need for exchanging dialogue in person was clearly evident when placing my groceries at the check-out counter. It became a welcome change in routine to strike up a lengthy conversation with a total stranger.

For me, opening up in public with a complete stranger (in this case, the cashier) was a clear sign that even I, a diehard introvert, needed to talk, just talk, about anything and everything. The cashier would listen as they bagged my groceries and took my payment; and they would also talk. We shared what was once revered as a real conversation.

We all need that release brought about through a real conversation. But, during the lockdowns, we’ve been encouraged to reach out to others, and to listen. Not to talk, but to listen.

I have friends I call once a week and that is exactly what happens: I listen, they talk. My grandmother always said that all you needed to start a simple conversation was the three words: “How are you?” So true. I’d call these friends, provide my standard greeting and ask, “How are you?” And the one-sided conversation would begin. Frustrating. I always knew I was a good listener, but this new experience was pointing out that even I needed someone to listen to me. All I needed was for the tables to be turned, ever so slightly, and for someone to ask me, how I was doing.

What I have come to realize, through all the isolationist strategies, is that introverts and extroverts alike have suffered this new norm. We have been advised by mental health experts to reach out to others and to listen, empathetically. As stated by the Mental Health First Aid (from National Council for Mental Wellbeing) “For a person experiencing a mental health problem, having an empathetic listener can be calming and reassuring — even healing.” The key word to this advice is the word, ‘listen’.

But, the question begs an answer: who is supposed to be listening to whom? And doesn’t the designated listener also need someone to listen to them?

We need to reach out and listen just as often as we reach out to be heard. Both talking and listening are therapeutic and good for our mental health. Covid has affected each and every one of us. We all need someone to listen to us. As much as I care for my friends, and I reach out to them often, to listen, I want my turn to talk, too, my turn to be listened to.

In her post for InSPIre the Mind, “How to be there for a Friend the first time they call you for support”, Athena Kam covers some valid and useful do’s and don’ts for being the friend on the other end of the line (phone or virtual meet), the one who listens. Summing up, reaching out is good for one’s mental health, both listening and talking, sharing and caring. Here are some of her key points in a healthy, friendly conversation:

  • Reach out and phone friends and really listen to what they have to say.

  • Assess and validate the emotions being expressed.

  • Offer assurances that your friend is not alone and what he/she is experiencing is quite common and to be expected.

  • Be positive and reassure the friend that he/she is not being a burden.

Letter-Writing, painting by Carl Larsson (1912), Nationalmuseum (Stockholm), photo of the painting by Erik Cornelius, Public Domain

Letter writing

Personally, I also need to be the communicator, as well as the listener. I have embraced another way to communicate that is beneficial to everyone and just as rewarding. Letter writing. Not the current electronic form of emails and private messaging. Not even the stilted forms of texting. Writing a real letter, with pen or pencil, on paper, folding it, tucking it in an envelope, addressing it and putting it in the mailbox.

Yes, I’m quite serious.

I have fond memories of years of letters exchanged that helped and healed both the sender and the receiver. There is that unique feeling that comes with a letter in the mailbox. I know from personal experience.

Living in the country, seeing the arm up on the mailbox sparks anticipation of something other than a flyer or a bill waiting to be opened and enjoyed. It is like taking a step back to my childhood when I’d be the first to collect the mail and the most excited to find something addressed specifically to me.

In her article, “The Surprising Mental Health Benefits of Letter Writing,” Amelia Diamond shares some key points, including the research of John F. Evans, a former English professor turned expressive writing clinician and researcher.

One of Evans’ clear quotes used in this article, “for a good number of people, expressive writing helps relieve depressive symptoms,” this simple statement sums it up. Why? Because writing down your thoughts, in a personal journal or a personal letter, can, and does, improve one’s mood as well as building reliance. Essential attributes to surviving this repeated chain of Covid lockdowns and restrictions.

As Diamond points out, the simple act of writing uses different parts of the brain and helps ease one’s overwhelming feelings of despair and fear. In short, writing letters makes us think differently. And, by writing these letters, one can be both the listener and the talker as letters back and forth allow both recipients the benefit of a true sharing exercise in communication.

True letter writing becomes, in itself, a narrative, a story. It can be happy, sad, congratulatory, apologetic, full of compassion, or just a story. But, as Evans promotes, “One of the things that we can do when we take control of the narrative is decide where we want to put our focus.”

This makes writing a powerful tool that can be beneficial on so many different levels to both the writer and the recipient and anyone else along the way who may have the opportunity to read the missive. By reading a letter, we all have the potential of becoming astute listeners; by writing a letter, we all have the opportunity to talk, to be listened to, to be heard.


Kasharp photograph, “An image of a little white country mailbox with flowers planted around it” (2015), photographer’s collection, Public Domain

The therapy is in the communication, the act of sharing in a conversation by both talking and listening. I’m not saying I can’t and don’t want to listen anymore. I do like to talk and to be listened to, while I tell my story. In writing letters, I have the power to be both. And that, I truly believe, is the true meaning of friendship: listening and being listened to.