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The Complexity of Simply Communicating

I recently visited southern California where I had the chance to have a one-on-one conversation with Z, the 20 year old son of two of my dearest friends. What would make that conversation special enough for me to want to share it with the Wiley Wandering crew? Well, sometimes you just know you are heading somewhere special, even before the journey begins.

Approaching 21 years ago, my two dear friends were pregnant with their first born. Due to a series of mishaps, their first child was born with cerebral palsy. Today this very intelligent, witty, charming young man, now a high school graduate and college student, doesn’t have any problems understanding the world he lives in, but that world doesn’t always necessarily understand him. Case in point, on a beautiful 76 degree day in Rancho Cucamonga, California I approached him in his family’s driveway while he was waiting for a van to pick him up for his day’s activities and asked him where he was going. He answered me, but it took me quite some time to understand what he had actually said. I would guess this, and he would dismiss that guess with a head shake, I would guess that, and again he would dismiss my guess with a kind, but emphatic head shake. As Z and I were attempting to align our communication, my eleven year old son joined us for the walk he and I had planned to go on. He witnessed some of our engagement, then Z’s ride picked him up, and my son and I embarked on our bonding moment.

As we walked I asked him how it was for him to communicate with Z. He told me he had no difficulties communicating with Z. Curious about whether he might be overstating the situation I asked him if he understood Z. He ensured me he was comfortable with the fact that their communication was good. I then asked him if his relationship with Z had influenced the way he saw others that were different from him. He said yes! He then talked a great deal about how he had no tolerance for kids who used mean spirited language like retard. I listened to my little man with pride as he told me a few stories about how he challenges other kids about the things they say. Now, I am not naïve. I know my son still does and says things that wouldn’t make me proud, as I am sure I still do. Nevertheless, his awareness and articulation of certain social injustices is probably more advanced than most his age and bodes well for the possibility that he will become better able to transcend some of his potential blind spots and insensitivities. Do you think, while exposure is not closure, we can avoid aversion with an attempted immersion into other’s realities? What makes you think this? What are your stories that serve as examples? How might we improve our world by taking the time to examine the realities/worlds of others?

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I had to chew on this one for a while, JW, and actually hoped some of my fellow bloggers would provide some insight before I weighed in.

"Immersion into other's realities" is not really the answer. Indeed, we can think of professions where immersion actually breeds cynicism or contempt, not tolerance. Corrections officers, burnt-out health care workers, even teachers can become jaded regarding the groups of people among whom they work.

And I don't think simple "exposure" is the answer either. If I get mugged by a homeless person, I've certainly been exposed to that person's realities, but, I'm not likely to be more tolerant or understanding as a result.

Personal connection is the key. If I know an African American person - if he/she is a friend or colleague, and I see that person as an idividual, I'm much more likely NOT to stereotype African Americans. I think the same goes for virutally every disadvangated group you can imagine. Personal relationships are the strongest antidote to stereotypes.

You like referencing movies alot, JW, so here's one for you - Remember the Titans. Two groups of players thought the worst of each other until they began to get to know each other - personally; one on one. They got to know each others' vibe, flava, essence - whatever you want to call it. When team members get to know each other as individuals aside from football, they became one group of players, intead of two.

Personally, I had never really known an African American before college. My first room mate at SU was Mark Pryor - track star, scholarship athlete, student, African American. He admitted to me he'd never roomed with "a white dude" and I admitted to him I wasn't all that sure about this either, but, what the hell. I won't say we became close friends - I moved in the band geek circle and he moved in the scholarship athlete circle (there's your next blog, JW). But we did get to know each other well. We shared family stories and met each others' parents. We shared meals, more than a few beers, even ran together. It didn't take long before we thought of each other, not as "my black roommate" or "the white dude" - but just as roommates.

Understanding between or among groups of people begins with understanding between and among individual persons.

*** CB, I think you make some great points about understanding between individuals often enhances the possibilities of better engagement with the groups represented by both individuals. You essentially are agreeing with me that immersion into another's reality does enhance the possibility of truly developing that understanding. Immersion isn't simply hanging with someone. I would call that exposure. Immersion is engaging that reality with some depth (like being immersed in a pool of water) as opposed to being exposed to a pool party, but not truly in the middle of the experience. When I am attempting immersion with a group of people I don't know well I am talking with them about who they are, what their reality is like, how they see me, etc. There is nothing superfiicial about my efforts to immerse myself into other's realities. So, the "professions where immersion actually breeds cynicism or contempt, not tolerance. Corrections officers, burnt-out health care workers, even teachers" whom you say "can become jaded regarding the groups of people among whom they work" I would argue aren't immersed in their professions or chances to truly engage their constituency. Instead they are just "exposed." Immersion requires a certain degree of desire to really get in there and make something happen.

CB, your statement "And I don't think simple "exposure" is the answer either. If I get mugged by a homeless person, I've certainly been exposed to that person's realities, but, I'm not likely to be more tolerant or understanding as a result" is intriguing as well. I would also argue that you weren't exposed to that person's reality, but exposed to some of the consequences or ramifications of their reality. You don't know what is inside of her/his head which may have prompted your getting jacked (for the slang impaired this means robbed or assaulted), or don't know what considerations may have been dismissed before she/he decided to go ahead and jack you anyway. You getting mugged is a happening that may range from you losing a minimal amount of money at the very least, to a life in the worst possible situation. In the less complicated scenario of getting mugged, you may catch your breath and refill your wallet and continue on into your evening. The homeless person though who committed the crime against you will be faced with another dilemma soon appearing on the horizon. Their reality is that they probably didn't acquire enough "loot" in jacking/mugging/robbing you or someone else that it will largely impact their life. Think about it! *** -- J.W.

"How might we improve our world by taking the time to examine the realities/worlds of others?"

We realize that everybody can teach us something. We might begin to catch a glimpse of that ever evasive "human nature" that philosophers speak of so much. For we are all human, and all alike in more ways then we often recognize.

It's a wonderfully diverse world out there; some corners are truly bright--like the young man you met; some are very dark--like the holocaust and slavery. But the more of the world we see and understand, the greater our ability to change that world--for the better.

I have recently begun working at a mental health/addictions clinic, where I have been immersed, (by nature of the exposure I have had to the clinic's clients) in the realities of others I would not have otherwise been exposed to. Yes, It is a different feeling to actually experience the details of someone's circumstances, as opposed to just seeing the consequences on the surface.

I was particularily impressed my a man who came in yesterday, seeking an appointment for a mental health evaluation, not because anyone was requiring him to (which is sometimes the case), but because his parole officer suggested it. The man was on foot and had walked approximately 10 miles to get to the clinic. He had just been released from prison and had served time for dealing drugs. He was very talkative and seemingly positive about his possibilities for the future. He went into great detail about his story and the circumstances as to how he became addicted to drugs and then, in order to support his addiction, became a drug dealer. He expressed how thankful he was to be alive, and clean, and on the road to recovery. He had deep regrets, but recognized how the experience has changed his life and made him a better person. Although he has no job, no phone, no permanent housing and has lost custody of his children, he is healthy enough to walk the ten miles or so he needs to walk to get to an appointment or to the Salvation Army for a meal. He sees hope in his future and has dreams of one day publicly speaking to teens who he may be able to positively influence with his story.

I also realize that this man may have days ahead where his obstacles will be extremely difficult for him to bear and that others, who need the same type of services he is seeking aren't healthy enough to walk to get to their appointments, or don't have the means or the courage to seek help. If they are so lucky as to achieve attending an intake appointment and begin the process which is required in order to eventually be treated, there is no guarantee as to when their actual treatment will begin, as the demand for services exceeds the availability of social workers and psychiatric medication providers in our area.

As I kiss my kids goodbye, (from our nice warm home) and head off to work, ( in my car) and ponder what I will do for entertainment next weekend, I think to myself how things appear on the surface, from a perspective which may be lacking an angle from beneath.

*** E, aside from your elegant phrasing of a poignant and touching scenario, undoubtedly perspective is the objective!!! Thanks for taking the time to share this story! *** -- J.W.

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