listening statue

Listening deeply to stories that challenge us

Image credit: © 2011 Amanda Slater, from Flickr | used via CC-BY-SA licensing

In my last post I took a look at the pain of feeling invisible and how easy it is to slip into the habit of allowing others in our lives to be invisible to us by seeing them merely as bit actors in a drama in which we hold the starring role. We forget that they have their own story in which they hold the starring role that is every bit as real and valid to them as our stories are to us.

It takes intentional effort and maturity to learn to get out of our own stories long enough to really see and hear the experiences of others—even those closest to us. It’s easier to do this with those we are most similar to us, of course, but it still takes a great effort to lay down our own agendas long enough to be open to theirs.

The task becomes more difficult when we are dealing with people who are very different from us because their experiences and worldviews and filters are outside of our own known story lines. That challenge grows even more when we benefit in some way from not granting the other full visibility.

Many years ago now, I spent several years in a highly male dominated environment in which the old boys network played a key role in how the system worked. I faced daily injustices in how I was treated in that environment as one of the only females present. When I would attempt to address these issues, my experiences were routinely dismissed and minimized (usually by labeling me as overly sensitive) because taking action to change the culture into a more inclusive environment would have cost them effort and the discomfort of change that had no benefit for them (as they saw it). They benefited from keeping things as they were, so they were not able to see or hear my experiences as valid.

This is the way that injustice always perpetuates itself. We all want to think of ourselves as good people who would not contribute to sustaining injustice in the world around us, but we also aren’t inclined to give up any of the privilege or benefits that we gain from an unjust system that works in our favor.

We reconcile this contradiction by refusing to see the validity of the experiences of those who are on the receiving end of the injustice. We either invalidate their story by labeling it an overreaction or by invalidating their personhood by trying to make them less credible, less deserving, or less virtuous than us in some way. This allows us to sustain a belief in our own innocence without having the make any changes that could cost us any privilege we now have.

But those who are the victims of our unjust systems will continue (rightly so!) to push for greater justice, and our refusal to see or hear the injustice just leads to greater anger and frustration on their part as they continue to live with the injustice of the system and the invisibility of our dismissal of their experience (and often their personhood) from our reality.

We see the results of this in the current events in Ferguson (among many other examples of conflict in our world). Those of us who benefit from a culture and a system that grants us privilege by virtue of the color of our skin have to work extra hard to see the injustice that is the daily reality for those whose skin is darker than ours. Truly seeing their experiences as valid would prompt us to make changes that would endanger the privilege that we currently benefit from, and this (often unconsciously) makes us deaf and blind to the reality they face daily.

When we are confronted with their experience, we find a whole myriad of ways to dismiss their stories as overreaction, to dismiss their experience as not being different from our own (after all, even the most privileged among us have experienced injustice to at least some small degree), or to dismiss their personhood as less deserving somehow. We move immediately to excusing ourselves from any possible blame, which allows us to avoid having to change.

Despite having been on the receiving end of this behavior as a woman in a male dominated environment, it’s all too easy for me to fall into the same trap when it comes to my own white privilege. My own privilege in this case becomes blinders that make it hard for me to see the situation clearly, and I’m learning that this means that I need to talk less and listen more deeply and intentionally to be able to see reality as it is.

It means that when I feel defensiveness and resistance rising to the surface as I hear someone else’s experience, these are signs that I need to listen more rather than less. It means that every time I find myself dismissing someone else’s story, I need to take a deeper look at how that benefits me and what I gain from making them invisible.

I’m deeply angry about what is happening in Ferguson and the continued injustice that is perpetuated against people of color in this country. I didn’t create the system that causes this injustice, and I don’t have the power to end it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference. And the best way I can do that is to truly see and hear the experiences of those who experience this injustice so I can better understand how to stop cooperating with an unjust system and how I can participate in changing it.

I’ll be the first to admit that despite how highly I value equality, I have plenty of room to grow in removing my own blinders, but I’m doing as much listening and reading as I can to get outside my narrow worldview to understand reality better.

Will you join me? What group of people do you benefit from keeping invisible? What can you do to listen to their story better?

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  1. This is a very brave post, Kenetha, so honest, as are all your posts. That is why they are so thought-provoking.

    What I hear in this post is compassion for it is compassion for life that allows us to hear what we would rather not. It is compassion that removes labels and reminds that each experience teaches us as does the person delivering the teaching. What helps me is remembering not to label but to hear what it is being said, to feel it, especially if it makes me uncomfortable for when it does, I know I have to go deeper.

    Every morning I express my gratitude for the day and for each moment that I am alive may I meet it with compassion, joy, loving-kindness, and equanimity for all in all things in all ways. I may have told you this before, and I apologize for mentioning it again, yet this morning mantra has changed the way I meet my life.

    Thank you, Kenetha, for being so thoughtful and open with your thoughts.

    1. Thank you so very much, Karen! Yes, I do find that the more I am able to get out of my own way to truly listen to others’ experiences who are different from mine, the more freely compassion flows. My heart so often breaks wide open when I am able to really see and hear the injustice that so many face all around me (and in so many other places in this world).

      I love your morning mantra! I don’t remember you mentioning it before, but that sounds like a wonderful way to start each day. I just might adopt that practice for myself! Thank you so much for sharing it with me.

      Thank you again for being such a faithful reader and commenter. You are such an encouragement to me!

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