Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Seeing and Speaking

We went on vacation last week, the full family of 5.  Husband's family lives on the East Coast, and most of them had never met me or my son.  So we flew out early on Saturday morning and returned on a Thursday, tired and glad for all the new memories.  I came home with one very clear realization: "Oh.  THAT'S why my parents always slept a lot on vacation."  Did you know children are exhausting?  Children are exhausting.  They're beautiful, funny, entertaining, challenging, and exhausting.  And a vacation with them is NOT the same as a vacation without them. Having one son and two step-children has broadened my understanding of my own parents, and I'm reliving my own memories in a new way.

Maybe it is the nature of our own experiential blindness, that we cannot see that which we have never lived in the midst of.  Even with twitter and access to a world of news, there's still a hard limit to that which we can truly "know" and grasp viscerally.  My vision has been limited by my life, my knowledge of the world dictated by the borders of my race, my gender, my age, my ability, my politics, my faith, my nationality.  This is true for all of us.  The world I saw before my ex-husband's incarceration was never colored by prison or courtrooms or the psychic aftermath of betrayal.  But the world I saw afterwards?  That world has prisons and courtrooms and counselors offices as permanent fixtures in the landscape.  I once was blind to them, but now I see.

Now I see, so now I can speak as well.  I've got lived experience, so I can talk a young woman I know through the incarceration of one of her loved ones.  I've got lived experience, so I can share with clergy friends about how to go about prison visitation.  I've got lived experience, so I can counsel folks who've suffered through infidelity.  I've got lived experience, so I understand and have solidarity with single parents.  

But I've also learned enough to know that my narrow sliver of the suffering pie does not give me the right to speak into ALL moments of suffering.  I've suffered through misogynistic treatment as a professional woman, but I've NOT suffered through racist-misogynistic treatment that women of color live through.  I can see, but I'm learning to listen rather than to be quick to speak.  I've had painful and unkind encounters with the justice system (police, lawyers, judges, etc.), but I've NEVER feared that I would be treated with the contempt that many people of color live with.  I can see, but in a peripheral way.

So as Caitlyn Jenner finds her way in the world, as the Rachel Dolezal story continues to broil, I know that the trajectory of my life has given me enough vision to see and know part of their stories.  But I know that my voice isn't necessary in explaining their stories.  I don't have the lived experience to act as an expert.  I'd rather my friend Jetta told you about the difficulty of the trans life and the phenomenon of "passing"; I'd rather you read the words of Rev. Sandhaya Jha and what it means to "pass for white" as you try to be an ally to the black community.   I don't have any issue with admitting my own limits, the ways I'm still on the margins of important culture moments.

Perhaps what I'm saying is this: We can help others from the places of our own suffering.  That is a great good.  But we can also help by halting ourselves from generalizing our experiences over into the lives of other people.  Speak when you should.  Listen more than you speak.  And learn, we must learn, to tell the difference between the moments of speaking and hearing.


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