Apparently, Ryan Fitzgerald’s mom never impressed upon him you shouldn’t talk to strangers.

At last count, Ryan’s talked to more than 5,000 of them.

If you’ve not heard of Ryan, he’s this guy who’s appeared on the YouTube Web site encouraging anyone who needs to talk, for any reason, to give him a jingle on his cell phone.

“I love talking to people,” he told the Boston Globe. “I just love helping people.”

Yes, if you really need someone, Ryan is offering to “be there” for you.

While “being there” for 5,000 people eventually might land Ryan in bankruptcy court with an enormous cell phone bill, many people are suggesting his heart is rich. After all, there is much spiritual teaching about listening.

Buddhism teaches “creative listening” can reduce the pain in the world. This listening emphasizes the importance of receptivity as a means of being present with people in their pain.

Christian scripture teaches us we have to listen to one another by “bearing one another’s burden.”

I often teach this listening principle in wedding vows when I encourage the couple to “share your joy and it will be doubled — share your sorrows and they will be halved.”

Yet, despite some clear spiritual teaching, we often struggle with listening. Why can’t we be more like Ryan? Why can’t we open our ears to anyone who needs to talk?

One problem we have is the high-maintenance people who often want to talk nonstop. These people will sometimes ambush you at the store over a basket of strawberries to tell you about their divorce or their suicidal tendencies.

They want us to do all the listening while they do all the talking, all the time. They want a spiritual massage.

We will often retreat from these people because we have limited time with jobs, families and obligations (constraints Ryan doesn’t share at the moment).

This retreat mode may work for us when it comes to problem talkers, but it creates a dilemma for us if we become stuck in this retreat mode.

Father River Sims, a street minister in San Francisco, has some observations about this tendency to retreat from listening.

He says our culture has gone into retreat mode by creating boundaries we call “clients, homeless, youth or the aged.”

He says these boundaries serve our purpose as they cause “people to become objects.” And the advantage to them becoming objects is you don’t have to listen to objects. Objects have no opinion. They have little to no value.

Sims, who recommends the Christian teaching on listening, says faith must include “bearing one another’s burden so that we see other people as fellow travelers on this space ship we call Earth, all journeying, all dying. No matter who we are, in the end, we are all equal.”

His emphasis on equality leaves no room for the one-way, high-maintenance talker, but it also leaves little room for retreat. Truthfully, good listening is one of those things easy to preach and hard to do. Witness the fact that my wife pulled me aside wanting to tell me more about her recent travels with our daughter.

Can’t you see I’m busy writing a column about listening? Give Ryan a call, will you?”

Just wait until he’s able to use his night and weekend minutes.

Norris Burkes is a civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Contact him at or visit