Better Kind than Right by George Merrill


“Sometimes it’s better to be kind than to be right; we do not need an intelligent mind that speaks, but a patient heart that listens.” So, said Gautama Buddha over 2500 years ago.

Buddha once said that everything changes; I believe there are a few things that don’t. Kindness is one. I learned this over fifty years ago in the school of hard knocks.

In my professional life as a clergyman and educator, I served in various hospitals as a clinical supervisor for clergy and religious professionals performing pastoral care. My task was to provide seminarians and clergy of all denominations a hands-on experience ministering to people in various kinds of personal crises. The settings I served in were general hospitals and a state-run drug dependence rehab facility.

Student pastors and clergy would spend summers as a part of a chaplaincy staff, like interns, and minister to the patents. Each encounter they had with patients would be written up and a verbatim account presented to me as their supervisor. We were exploring listening skills and helping develop a deeper sensitivity to how people behave in crisis and how we can be most helpful.

In short, these were supervised opportunities to deepen the student’s awareness of listening and how it can grow into the art of hearing.

Hearing is not as easy. In fact, many students were alarmed at the discipline required to simply hear what others were saying. In the normal course of our communications, we are typically forming what we are going to say next even while the person we’re with is still talking.

In the various kinds of psychotherapy and in the practice of spiritual direction, an expression emerged, first in psychiatry and then in general counseling; “Listening with the third ear.” It’s a special kind of listening.

The reason we have trouble hearing is fairly uncomplicated. We spend our days with an agenda. I’d go further and say, an agenda every minute. It varies with what we’re about at that moment, but once our agenda is established, we don’t surrender it easily. And then too, people in crisis often don’t get a good hearing because their suffering evokes so much anxiety in the listener that he or she can’t wait to change the subject. Perhaps the most common response to someone’s painful suffering is to issue reassurances or try to encourage the victim not to complain, but to look on the bright side of things. It’s a form of being in control.

For a person, hungry to have their struggles taken seriously, premature reassurances are the most effective ways to shut significant communication down.

Empathy and compassion are not hot items in today’s world. We’re more inclined to respond to someone’s pain with “get over it” than by just sitting still and listening.

In the modern sense, listening with the third ear is a little like Buddha’s timeless observation twenty-five hundred years ago about kindness: better to be kind than right. Folk wisdom teaches us that no one really likes a know-it-all with the exception of the know-it-all.

The various schools of psychotherapy and the disciplines of spiritual guidance require a mode of thinking different from what we are accustomed to. The end of both disciplines is not so much problem solving, but heightened awareness. The heightened awareness is only the instrument in helping to solve problems. Advice in both disciplines is used sparingly, if at all.

I have my own story going from listening to “hearing.” It was a shocker.

I am a young, newly ordained priest. I’m two years out of seminary. I want to help people. I have completed my internship in Clinical Pastoral Education and am reasonably well equipped to do good in this world. To put it more succinctly, I’m full of beans and, as beans go, they are good beans.

A woman from my parish in Connecticut was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital called the Institute for Living. I was told she had a ‘nervous breakdown,’ the kind of catchall lay diagnosis popular during the early sixties.

I receive a notice she wants to see a priest. I eagerly go to perform my pastoral duties.

I knock on the door. The woman takes a while, but finally opens the door. I see that she looks distressed, maybe angry or depressed, but I am not certain. She is dressed fashionably and has a veneer of the upper echelon of old Connecticut families, many of whom are parishioners where I serve. I do not know her.

I introduce myself saying that I am the chaplain on call and understand that she wants to see a clergyman (it’s ‘man’ in those days.) She looks at me skeptically for a moment as if she were trying to figure out just what to say. I am a good listener, or so I think, and I give her the appropriate time to tell me more if she chooses to. I wait eagerly.

She speaks.

“You know, this is the fourth time I asked to see a priest and now you’re here, about a week late.” She is angry. I am intimidated and a little antsy about just how to handle it.

I immediately respond with a profuse apology saying among other things that the schedule at the church just before Easter was hectic and many things had been delayed and I’ve been behind for a week as a result. I assure her I came as soon as I was able.

For a moment she is silent, as if digesting what I said. She then looks at me conspiratorially as if she has a secret to reveal. With a beatific expression on her face accompanied with a steely voice she asks me if it would be all right to tell me something personal in the strictest confidence. I assure her what she says will be confidential. In a voice void of emotion, she says; “You know what you can do with your busy schedule, your church duties and your Easter obligations? Stick it up *+#@.”

How do I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? This is alien turf for this young and unseasoned clergyman.

I am floored, completely blindsided. I momentarily freeze. My words stumbling, I offer a lame apology and suggest I might come another time. To my eternal shame I remember saying “When it’s more convenient.” She replied, “Don’t bother, you’re too busy.” I am shaken.

After I left, I wrote up an account of the visit and took it to my supervisor, Al, a kind and gentle man. We processed the interview together. He chuckled good naturedly and helped me see what had happened. I had simply not heard, or more accurately didn’t want to listen to the rage she had for feeling so discounted and abandoned by the clergy. She wanted to vent on me and I didn’t want her to. I tried to talk her out of her feelings by elaborate explanations and apologies. It was my way to be ‘right.’ To her credit, she’d have none of it.

I have no way of knowing whether the great and venerable Buddha ever faced a whopper like this. but I do believe if he did, he wouldn’t try to get in the right by justifying himself with excuses; I imagine he’d say nothing. He’d just be kind and unruffled, look at her with soft eyes, listen attentively while breathing deeply.

Always best to be kind than right.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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