Saturday, 20 August 2011

It’s good to talk

Whenever I settle down for a quiet read on the train, another passenger invariably plonks him or herself down and inadvertently sabotages it. It’s usually a chubby, middle-aged man who immediately takes over the armrest and insists on engaging me in deep conversation as he choffs down a pungent cheese and onion sandwich. Either that or a student sits in the seat behind and hollers the events of a wild night out down the phone while repeatedly kicking the back of my chair.

These episodes really used to grind my gears. Why can’t people just keep themselves to themselves, I would ask myself as I pushed Keith/Geoff/Malcolm’s arm off the armrest? And why can’t Charnelle/Alicia/Mia relive her drunken night via text? I’ve bought a brand new novel for this journey and they are ruining it for me!

But rather than trying to persuade my fellow passengers to keep quiet through the use of dirty looks and overloud sighs (as I used to do), I’ve come to realise that as human beings we need to interact with each other, to tell folk how we’re feeling, to make people laugh, to gain approval, to unburden ourselves.

And one of the benefits of train talk, I guess, is that it’s more or less anonymous (unless you’re spilling your guts in the same carriage as your boss). That way, our sex-obsessed student can voice the most intimate of thoughts without being overheard by her mother or the housemate she hooked up with last night. And cheese and onion man is free to express himself in the safe knowledge I won’t be able to shop him to anyone he knows.

As Christians, I feel we have a responsibility to engage with people who are desperate to be heard. On several occasions I’ve felt overwhelmed with sadness about other passenger’s lives: the loss of a loved one; the terrible aftermath of an affair; or a confidence-shattering work situation.

I’m not saying we should make lifetime commitments to help these people, and women, particularly, should be cautious when talking to men they don’t know. But I do think it can help people to know someone is prepared to listen, is interested in what they have to say, and can offer helpful advice where necessary. An opportunity might arise to offer prayer or to share the gospel, but often people are just looking for a willing ear.

It’s also worth remembering that trains aren’t the only venues where we encounter people who need to talk. I’ve heard the life stories of several people while waiting at bus stops (what is it about Brits and public transport?!). I’ve been drawn into deep conversations in the pub. And some of the neediest people I’ve met have unburdened themselves to me over a cup of coffee at church.

Since making myself more available to people, I’ve discovered that the listening process actually works both ways; that you literally reap what you sow when you make the effort to ‘love your neighbour’. For me, talking to random people has led to job offers, an opportunity to buy a much-needed new bike for next to nothing and help organising heavy luggage, to name but a few.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love to lose myself in a good book, but there are occasions when we should put what we’re reading down, turn off our iPods and allow people to open up.

You never know, maybe the next time we’re on the train Graham/Susy will tell us the story of a friend who got on a train, met someone who offered up a simple piece of advice and experienced a major turnaround in his or her life.

As the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved...

Read more from Joy in the next issue of Sorted magazine.

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