The Value of an ‘Ear’

There was a point in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that I felt compelled to see what I could volunteer to do to help my hard-hit community of Hoboken, N.J. On this one day, while staying with a friend because I had no electricity or heat, I set out to do something useful.

Upon my visits to a local church being used as a shelter and a park a few blocks from there where I’d heard via social media that volunteers were needed, I found coordinators who were thrilled to have such an outpouring from the community (and even some altruistic folks from out of town) that they were turning away offers.

After leaving my name with the church coordinator, I continued walking around and pondering my next move. At some point, though, I realized something significant and heartening. I was already helping. Throughout my walk, which all told was about 25 blocks, I had been stopping and talking to people. I knew some of them, maybe not by name, but by sight from the neighborhood. Some were strangers I stood behind in line for a much coveted cup of coffee.

Here’s what started happening. I realized the value of my listening ear.

In times like disasters, there are several tiers of folks affected. You have the awful, extreme cases where people have lost everything. Then there are those who have lost some things but their homes are still intact. But there are also people who are displaced temporarily because of electricity/heat issues and are living with generous friends or relatives; that can bring its own set of tense problems.

As I drew out people in this latter category, I almost always heard their guilt about complaining at all. They knew others had it so much worse. They qualified that they were lucky to have only been inconvenienced rather than upended. But they were ripe for some attention and a purging. It was like all they needed was a little “download” and they walked away from me feeling better.

From the former client I walked across the park with to the stranger I sat next to while powering up my mobile phone in the church to the café worker on call in case her employer got the generator going, it was easy and natural for me to ask how they were doing, if the lights were on yet, if their families were safe.

Over a week after the storm hit, I was surprised by the number of people without electricity or heat in their homes who were at work, waiting on customers like me in the grocery store, post office and café. They were going home to darkness and in some cases a city-imposed curfew because of the danger that darkness poses. Their commutes are at least twice as long and tiresome as usual. They brighten when asked how they’re weathering things.

Wouldn’t you?

I share all of this because I confess to it all being a revelation for me. I don’t need to advertise my desire to volunteer. I don’t want a medal pinned to my chest. But with the holidays coming and people wondering how they can be giving in a variety of contexts, I thought it might make some people think. The last two weeks have sure had that effect on me. I am now more open to bringing myself to individual situations that I can improve.

As an extension of this, perhaps one of the greatest lessons I learned (or re-learned) from Hurricane Sandy that can be applied to life moving forward is the one we all hear when we fly. It involves putting our own oxygen mask on first before trying to assist others. It’s become almost cliché for life coaches to explain this concept to clients, as so many of us come from households or spiritual disciplines where martyrdom or spreading oneself too thin is seen as noble and the opposite behavior is seen as selfish.

What I’m feeling these days is a sense that the stronger I get and the more stable my home base, the better equipped I am to help out a neighbor. Once I had my electricity back, the following morning I scrubbed my bathroom so when I offered showers to a few who still don’t have hot water it would be more comfortable. By squeezing in 30 minutes on a stationary bike I built up my own endurance; that will undoubtedly spill over to others.

When I did manage an evening shift at the church shelter, I was delighted to realize that aside from making sure the people were comfortable and respectful to each other, my main duty was to engage them. We talked about the Giants’ game and what a tough loss it was, memories of other storms, and families. As I readied to leave at the end of my shift, one woman asked brightly, “Will you be back tomorrow?”

Be still my heart. While I answered yes because I had indeed signed up for the night shift the following evening, the shelter blessedly closed the next day as people returned to their homes.

But not before giving me a strong appreciation for the gift that listening can be.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to