My three year old nephew, Oliver, is amazingly wise. The other day he turned to my sister and, out of nowhere, observed, "Sometimes we're strangers to other people." My sister has been doing the incredibly important parent job of teaching Oliver about safety and has been explaining to him the concept of strangers: someone we don't know, so we don't know if they are safe or if they might hurt us. Though they hadn't talked about it in days, his tiny mind had been ruminating until he realized a truth that still eludes many.
We are all dangerous to others until we are known.
My home state of Missouri has been making the national news pretty often recently, especially in areas of race relations. The events in Feurgeson and most recently at MU have garnered national attention and started international movements, such as #blacklivesmatter and #concernedstudent1950. They've also ignited some very intense debates about race, rights, respect, bias and prejudice.
All of these events conjure very big feelings very quickly, as I've seen on campus at MU, in my conversations with friends and even in my own home as I found myself struggling to talk with my husband about these racially-focused events, our conversations quickly becoming heated and requiring a lot of hard work to bring to clarity.
As usually happens at times like this, conversations explode with defensive protestations. "I'm not racist, but..." "My life matters too!" "What about the rights I don't have?" "But what you're not being told is..." These protestations are usually met with an opposing protestation ("We're not saying your life doesn't matter, but people already know that!" "Yes, but what YOU aren't being told is...") and round and round we go until everyone's upset and no one is listening.
What amazes me in all these conversations is the almost desperate vehemence we each have for our own Story to be heard by the Other and, simultaneously, our unwillingness to hear the Other's Story. It's as if we put on our combat boots, lace them up to our knees, and head out into the fray screaming "I matter too! My Story is important! Everyone is listening to your Story, but no one is listening to mine!" We stomp on the Other, the Other stomps back, and we all end up bruised in the process.
As an author, I collect stories. There is no greater honor for me than to be allowed to sit and listen to someone's Story; the holy journey that has brought them to where and who they are right now, in this moment. The only way I have found that I can do this, however, is to enter the Story-ground barefoot. I have to take off my combat boots, strip off my thick wool socks, and walk gently into the Story of the Other, naked to all the dangerous pieces of their Story, able to hear them with a deep openness.
I have to let myself be vulnerable. I want to see what they have seen, feel what they have felt, experience life through their eyes. It often happens that by the time something plummets a story into the national news arena, people close to the situation have become so vehement in expressing their own Story that we who are watching from a bit of a distance may find it tempting to lace up our army boots and go into battle, either alongside them or against them. When we engage in the battle fully booted, however, we cannot help but stomp all over the Story that has to be told, and understood, in order for peace and compassion and understanding to grow.
So, what does it mean to walk onto the Story-ground barefoot?
It means you choose to listen to the Other as if you know nothing about their Story and they know everything about it.
Admit that, unless you were there from day one, you have no idea what is going on. Unless you have lived your life in skin the color of the Other's, in homes the same as the Other's, in schools just like the Other's, in a body with the same feelings as the Other's, in the church attended by the Other, you don't really know what brought them to the point that they are at right now.
Listen to their own words, as they choose to speak them, and set your questions and objections aside for this moment. Really hear their Story. If you are confused or angered by the Other's story, offer your confusion, questions or anger to them directly and give them the chance to explain themselves. You may be surprised by their answers.
It means that you remove your Story from the conversation, unless it is your turn to tell it. This is the only way to acutally listen.
Each and every one of us has lived a Story through our own choices and experiences and this Story makes us who we are. This is true of ourselves, it is also true of the Other. We must hold our own sacred Story close to our heart and know its deep, rich value, while also understanding that some moments in time exist for the Other to tell their story and us to listen. There will come a time for your Story to be shared, and when that time comes it will be even richer and more beautiful because it contains the open willingness of learning from the Other.
It means you choose to believe that more than one Story can be true at the same time.
One of the greatest challenge of listening to the Story of the Other is the fear that accepting their Story as valid must somehow devalue our own Story. This could not be farther from the truth! The ability to recognize, and accept, that two Stories can exist at the same time and in the same space, even when pieces of them seem to contradict one another, is a holy practice which generates compassion and love. It is not a question of which Story is right and which is wrong. It's a question of understanding that Story, and its fruit, is holy. All lives matter. Absolutely. And black lives matter. Absolutely. We are called to welcome and care for those in need, the refugee and the hungry and the abandoned, within and without our country. To do the one does not mean to reject the other. Many white Americans come from difficult, poor, under-privileged lives, and many of us work our entire lives to be able to support ourselves and care for our families at a level that we find comfortable. Also, many black Americans experience difficult, poor, mis-treated lives and struggle to find a place in America. Both are true. The acceptance of one's truth does not necessitate the rejection of another's truth.
It means you plant your feet deep firmly on the ground, and you feel everything there is to feel.
Listen, then listen again, then listen again. Be still and experience each emotion the Story of the Other raises, as they come. When those emotions are frighteningly strong, dig your feet into the dirty pain of them and ask the Creator of Story why these feelings are so strong, and where they come from. You may be amazed what you will learn about yourself through the process of listening.
We are all strangers to someone, until we are known by them. They are strangers to us, until we know them. Peace and compassion cannot flourish until we recognize our fear of the Other and choose to release it. Tich Naht Hahn says, "How do we generate the energy of compassion? Compassion is born from understanding, and understnding is born from looking deeply. We need to take time to look deeply into our situation, and the situation of the other person or other people. Let us learn to look at our suffering, and the suffering of our world, as a kind of compost. From that compost, from that mud, we can create beautiful lotuses of uderstanding and compassion."
May we all choose to remove the fear of the Other from our lives, by taking off our shoes and wading into the holy mud of Story. And may beautiful things grow from it.
Tessi, the Barefoot Author
I am grateful to Joseph Milord for his article "Your Unofficial Guide To Not Being So Stupid About This Missouri Thing" published on www.elitedaily.com, which contributed to my writing this post.