Across the years, I have spent many hours in personal counseling and have learned a great deal about myself. I am not a licensed counselor, but over the years many have come to me in me roles of priest, pastor, or chaplain seeking counseling.
I used to think people coming to me wanted my advice about things. But I have learned better. But what I have learned is that really all that is required is to ask two questions and be quiet. I have done it hundreds and hundreds of times.
Several years ago, a man came in to see me saying that he had a very serious problem. He was so nervous he could hardly talk. When he sat down, he sat on the edge of the chair. He acted as if he thought the chair might fall under him just any moment. I told him that was a good sturdy chair and that he should just sit back and relax. And then I told him my story.
When I started in the ministry, I had an issue. I would get so nervous when I had to speak before groups. I would talk too fast and get myself all worked up.
My speech professor in seminary explained to me that I was too tense when I was preaching and that I should learn to relax. Then he gave me the wisest advice anybody has ever given me. He said, “Bob, remember when you preach always keep your hands relaxed.” It has now been nearly 50 years since his suggestion, but from then until now, I have the most relaxed hands you have ever seen, even though I might not be the best preacher you have ever heard.
Over the years I have had a lot of fun with this. I have noticed when I fly in airplanes, nearly every person is a little nervous, especially when we get into some turbulence. I watch people sitting in the seat next to me and, almost invariably, during turbulence people will take hold of the arms of their seats and hold as tightly as they can.I have asked people why they are holding on to those seats, and I have explained that the seat belt will hold them, and there is no way they could get out of the seat no matter how turbulent the air is. I suggest that they turn loose of the arm rest, and begin to relax their hands. Really, it is miraculous how a person begins to lose tension and settle down when their hands become relaxed.
Anyway, back to my story. I got this man who had come to see me for counseling relaxed. Then I asked him my first question, “What is your situation?” I sat quietly and carefully listened as he gave me his answer. When he finished I said, “I think you have it right there. That is what I would do.”
He got up. He took my hands and said to me, “You have solved my problem.”
Now, I say that is good counseling. The truth is that I did help him. He did not need me to tell him what to do. Most of the time, we are not confused. Most of the time we know the answers. We just do not want to do what we know we ought to do. But, sitting there with his minister, this man felt a support that enabled him to make his decision.
It is frightening sometimes to realize how that one’s entire life can be changed by just one decision. Decisions have a way of not waiting and if we evade and compromise, decisions move on out of our reach and we are left behind in defeat. To me, that’s the value of counseling, and I am always advising people to seek it out.
By Bob Mueller
Bob Mueller is Bishop of the United Catholic Church.