Listening to the Stories

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My grandson recently wrote a paper for his Pre-AP English class and asked me to critique it before he turned it in to his teacher. He discussed stereotyping and the human tendency to form biases based on the limitations of personal experiences and perceptions. In his piece he quoted author, Chimamanda Adichie, and her comments from a TED talk which she called The Danger of a Single Story. Ms. Adichie noted that as she was growing up she was an avid reader of British novels which she enjoyed even though she had always lived in Nigeria and was often unable to even imagine some of the cultural aspects about which she read. When she attempted to begin her own writing career she often mimicked the style from the novels she had so loved, but because she had never actually experienced such things her writing was artificial. It was only after she discovered African authors that she realized that there was indeed a place and a need for the thoughts of an African woman.

Ms. Adichie understood not only that in limiting her own story she had not been real, but also that others continue to see people of Africa from stereotypical perspectives just as her college roommate did. When Ms. Adichie arrived at an American university the young woman with whom she would share living quarters was shocked that Ms. Adichie spoke perfect English and was already so well educated. In fact, Ms. Adichie’s father was a college professor and her family lived an affluent middle class lifestyle in Nigeria complete with servants. In an interesting twist, Ms. Adichie admitted to her own prejudices by telling of a young man who worked for her family whom she thought of as being poor and somewhat ignorant. Over time she learned that while his family had very little in terms of wealth or possessions, they nonetheless had amazing artistic abilities.

It seems that each of us is sometimes guilty of seeing other people with whom we are unfamiliar through the lens of a single story. For example, we may watch a war torn nation in the Middle East and think of all such places as being chaotic and violent. We may make the mistake of presuming that the people who live there have the same characteristics, and we place them into a kind of caricature of who they really are. If we think that a particular place is dangerous, then we may be suspicious anyone who lives there. It is a kind of protective mechanism that we assume, but it also leads to thinking that puts whole groups of people into unfair categories that are mostly incorrect.

I found myself really thinking about this and wondering how many of the world’s problems are actually caused by this idea of clinging to a single story based on our own beliefs and feelings rather than attempting to truly understand how and why other people are reaching different conclusions form our own. I was reminded of my teaching days when I found success in reaching the hearts and minds of my students whenever I was willing to truly understand them. That meant suspending all of my preconceived notions and then helping them to surrender theirs as well. Once we met each other from the perspective of truly respecting our differences we made progress in building  meaningful and mutually satisfying relationships.

I think of so many problems in our current divisive political climate that will never be fully resolved until we are ready and willing to get the whole story from every side without insisting that we already know who is right and who is wrong. We have to be willing to read and listen and learn. When someone has a point of view that bothers us, our question should not be, “How can you be that way?” but rather “Tell me why you feel that way? I truly want to understand.” It is critical to the health of the world that we do our best to see the whys and wherefores of different cultures and then allow and celebrate the diversity of thoughts and customs. The only reason for demonstrating disdain for another person should be when it becomes clear that he/she is dangerous and evil. Otherwise it would behoove us to learn as much about the people and places that puzzle us as possible. Most of the time there are very good reasons why each individual is the way he/she is.

As humans we have certain ways of coping that are somewhat universal. We tend to ally ourselves with groups and people who appear to be much like ourselves, and often fear those whom we do not understand. We can break down barriers only if we are willing to suspend judgement and see through the other person’s eyes. Doing so make life better for everyone.

As my grandson noted in his essay each of us is different and special in many ways. Until we take full advantage of every opportunity to broaden our experiences by opening our minds and our hearts most especially to people that we can’t quite understand, the specter of the many “isms” that plague societies will continue to fester. So, the next time you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about anyone, take a moment to find out more about them. Try to truly understand how they came to adopt a certain point of view. Listen not to reply or argue, but only to learn. Really hear the stories. They are as exciting and enlightening as a great book.


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