Dear Future Self

“First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.”

— First They Came For The Communists, Martin Niemoller

 

Dear Jodi,

Hi there. It’s me— I mean you.
You have a big responsibility coming up. You’re going to have to sit with someone and ask that person what it’s really like to be him/her and allow that person to relay the complexities and joys and hardships rooted in his/ her identity and life experiences. Yeah, that’s huge.

First off, do you remember when you were 12 years old and your mom went to rehab for the second time that year? Do you remember how your dad decided to caravan you down to Houston to pick her up, only to find that you were being forced to attend an Al Anon workshop and recount your experiences “living with an alcoholic”? The lady you spoke with during one-on-one time seemed only to be half listening to you…not hearing your true words but sifting through them, attempting to decipher some meaning in them that she already expected to find. And then she used your story as an example for the group, only she didn’t really tell the story you had just begrudgingly confessed to her. I know you remember. It sucked.

And you need to remember this going into the interview process. You will be asking someone for part of his/her story— something real and raw and authentic to that person— and you need to document it as accurately and respectfully as possible.

First, you need to check your privilege at the door. Remember that privilege is an inherently good thing that we all have to some degree. It does not attribute to our character, and it does not make us “bad people”. Do not feel guilt because of it. But privilege conditions us to see our environment and those around us in specific ways that can be oppressive and damaging. This can come across in our preconceived stigmas about a given population, our misunderstanding of culture or social structures, and our language. In the interview process, you can check your privilege by approaching with an open mind and an accepting heart. You can actively strive toward inclusive and politically correct word usage to minimize the footprint of your privilege. And you should start by understanding that your world-views can be skewed and that listening to the interviewee (really really listening) can allow you to learn something new and valuable from said person’s experiences.

Second, it is crucial that you remember Chimamanda Adichie’s warning about the “single story”. Nobody’s culture or individual life can be limited to or surmised a single documentation of experience. It is extremely detrimental for us to let one story represent all we know or all there is to know about a population. Whoever you interview has a unique story to tell about his/her personal experience in a given group. You cannot expect this person to speak on behalf of the population. It is not his/her job to educate you. Likewise, you cannot let a single schema of said population represent the interviewee. This type of thinking can cause you to severely misrepresent both parties. Just as you are more than one story and deserve to be seen as such, so is the other person.

Thirdly, you must find a way to love the humanity within the person. You must allow yourself to vulnerably empathize and connect to the interviewee’s humanity and be touched by his/her words. And you must listen not to correct but to understand and to love.
As Tara Bach says: “love has sometimes been described as giving our full, unconditional attention. When it’s really full and unconditional, the love is already there.”
Notice the trend? To love. Love is listening. Love is giving. It’s not an entity. It’s something we actively strive toward, something we practice. May your number one goal in all of this be to practice the art of compassion and unconditional love. May you step outside of yourself in order to deeply desire to know someone else.

I know you can do this. Be confident in your ability to succeed and to be completely humbled by the humanity of another.

Love, Jodi

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