If you are an authority figure in the life of people around you, you’ll likely wind up with them confiding their darkest secrets to you. Bartenders, I’m told, experience this. Certainly pastors certainly do. And sometimes administrators, teachers and college professors have it happen to them.
I’m an ordained deacon, an adult Sunday School teacher, and a college professor. It happens to me a lot. I need to point out that most of the people who unburden themselves to me are not my friends (though I have had friends do this to me, too). In fact, most of the folks who have told me the sad tales from their lives barely count as acquaintances. And yet they are happy to tell me details of themselves that are startling. I would be mortified if I had such struggles in my life, and I can’t even imagine why I’d tell someone I hardly know all about them.
Sometimes while I’m struggling to keep the look of surprise off my face while I’m being told an unexpected confession, I remember an old joke. Three pastors met one day for lunch. The first pastor looked at his companions and told them, “I’m burdened with my problems. Would you mind if I shared them?”
“Go right ahead, brother.”
“Ever since I became pastor, I’ve struggled with my greed. It would be so easy, some Sunday, to slip my hand into the collection plate and simply take some of that cash for myself.”
“You’re not alone in having struggles,” confessed the second pastor. “I’ve had a problem with lust all my life. Sometimes when the organist is playing, it’s all I can do not to stare at her legs. And I can’t express how hard it is for me to avoid the porn sites on the internet.”
The third pastor by this time was grinning, barely able to contain himself. At last he burst out, “I’m sorry, but I have to confess that I have a terrible problem with spreading gossip!”
Thankfully, I don’t have a gossip problem. In fact, I find just the opposite: I have trouble remembering the details from what people tell me when they open themselves up like that. Which can be a problem if a week or two later they ask me what I thought, or start telling me what has happened next and I don’t remember what went before.
I think part of the way I handle all the unhappy information is that I don’t internalize it. Instead, I let is slip away from me: in one ear and out the other. I don’t dwell on what they tell me, I don’t contemplate and concern myself with any thought of what I would do in their situation. I don’t let myself focus on what they told me. It doesn’t keep me up at night.
I know, especially since this happens to me regularly, that most folks are just happy to have someone that they can talk to. They want someone who will listen calmly, without reacting negatively. Mostly, all people really need is a warm body to pour their words into.
As to why people feel comfortable unburdening themselves to someone that they don’t really know all that well, I’m not entirely certain. What leads them to trust a stranger with their intimate worries and problems?
I’m not unique in having it happen to me, though. My wife works with new teachers in her school district. It’s a mentoring position. She finds that it is not uncommon for them to open up to her—and not just about issues in their classrooms, but private matters as well.
Still, I think it happens to me a bit more than to most people. I’ve had strangers in stores, restaurants, and on street corners suddenly start talking to me about the oddest things. It even happens in the virtual world. Given the fact that I run the website for our seminary, I get email from random strangers. Most are simple requests for information, but every so often I’ll get an email that pours out the most heartrending information.
Thankfully, people who turn to me to talk about their misery are rarely, if ever, looking for solutions or advice from me. They just want someone to talk to. As to why they don’t talk to their friends instead, I’m not certain—particularly since I have friends who do the same thing to me that strangers do, but in that case, I don’t find it odd. Friends should be able to open up to one another. Life can be cruel. I can’t imagine facing it alone.
I wonder if there are simply a lot of people out there who don’t have any close friends or family to help support them through life, so they reach out in desperation. Perhaps some percentage of those in therapy are there simply because they don’t have anyone in their lives that they are close enough to, or comfortable enough with, to confide in.
Or maybe someone taped a sign on my back that instead of saying “kick me” says, “therapy for free.”