Saturday 20 August 2011

Building Bridges: When words fail you

Watching CPAC's coverage of a panel discussion at the Couchiching Conference 2011: From the Ground Up: Civic Engagement in Our Times, I found myself squirming in sympathetic discomfort as a participant tried to formulate a question to Chief Ovide Mercredi.

I knew what she WANTED to say, but she was nervous and I could tell she was trying desperately to express too many things at once, and doubly pressured by a stated time constraint.

From my perspective, she was trying to say, "I am a young woman of colour, my attire labels me as Muslim; I understand being "Other." I am also educated and active and I want to help, so what can I do to help you and your people?"

It didn't come out that way at all, of course, as so many things we TRY so carefully to express fall out of our mouths in unhappy clots that bear no resemblance at all to our intentions. Dismay fills us and we blush, horrified by our failure and we babble on, hoping to redeem ourselves.  Oh, yes, I've been there.

Now, I won't claim to be an expert in body language, but Chief Mercredi seemed to withdraw, to steel himself, as I do when trapped by someone who clearly doesn't "get" me trying to prove otherwise and I don't know whether to lash out in frustration, search for another way to try to express a message I'm tired of repeating or just bolt.

I was raised to focus on similarities, not differences. From an early age, my mother read letters to advice columnists to me and asked how I would respond to their problem, before revealing Ann or Abby's reply. Granted, I often hated it at the time – how could I, a child, possibly respond to an adult having problems with another adult? My perspective was limited by my experience; my world was so much smaller. It wasn't fair to expect me to understand her pain and confusion and anger! But, it was a game I was impelled to play. I had to give an answer, any answer, before I was released.

While the game may not have been fair, it taught me to draw on my own experience to understand others – problems between spouses are similar enough to problems between school mates; problems between boss and subordinate are close enough to those between child and parent. When I was in the mood to play and considered the problem, my responses were often deemed by my mother to be equal to or better than those given by paid "professionals" – really, aren't most interpersonal problems, boiled down to their essence, fairly similar?  Otherwise, my childish need to be elsewhere responded flippantly just to end the game so I could go play at something less arduous, earning me maternal disappointment and frustration which occasionally lengthened the game. I didn't blow off answers often, as I just never knew for certain if I could get away with it. Sometimes, it's just easier to give people what they want.

Not surprisingly, this became my ingrained approach to understanding others. It isn't as certain (or arrogant) as "I feel your pain", but rather more like, "I have felt pain, so I will use that memory to relate to your response to pain." It's the best tool I have and it works rather well, overall and I can honestly say, "I can imagine how you feel." This is often the foundation for conversations with people who accept that statement as truth and proceed to expand my understanding with their experience.

The barrier to this is when the response is, "No, you can't! You aren't black/brown/yellow/red/male/Muslim/Jewish/deaf/blind/elderly (or any of the million things I'm not), so you don't know exactly what I feel!"

Well, I can't dispute that. I admit that my experience remains limited and, God willing, shall remain so. (Well, except for the "elderly" part.)

However, that does not mean I have not been hungry, lonely, hopeless, angry, frustrated, poor, different, unemployed, marginalised, attacked, teased, afraid, in mourning, slandered, exploited or in so much pain I longed for death because I could not imagine any other end to it.

I also understand how isolating and personal pain can be – whether it's physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological.  When you are experiencing that pain, it defines you, shapes and colours your world, for as long as it lasts. It belongs to you and no one else can really know what you feel, because it's yours and yours alone. The isolation increases with every person who tries to explain it from a perspective of ignorance. Unconsciously, you build walls to protect yourself and your pain and lash out at anyone who stumbles along and ham-fistedly tries to help.

I have viewed these attempts with scorn, my pain giving me a sense of superiority over those who have never felt it. I've embraced the anger of the injustice that I have to suffer when so many do not and their world keeps turning while mine remains mired in the muck of my pain.  It's all-encompassing and completely unreasonable, but if you have ever tried to reason with a woman in the middle of giving birth, you might have a frame of reference. (Not to mention a "What the hell were you thinking?")

So, here's a question: In the entire history of humanity, has anyone, anywhere ever tried to build a bridge when they didn't have the slightest idea of what was on the other side?

No doubt people have lived their lives on riverbanks who haven't cared what's on the other side because they don't need to know and it doesn't matter to them. When your needs are met and your life is full, who cares what's "over there"? Look where curiosity got Pandora, thank you very much.

I'm not one of those people. I want to know. I want to build bridges and understand and discover and expand my world.

In my limited, ham-fisted way, I will stumble onto your shore in my leaky boat and use my broken language to ask questions I pray won't insult you with their awkward ignorance.

My intentions are pure, even if my tongue can't express them well.

Teach me.


  1. A beautiful, thoughtful, compassionate and empathetic post. I am very glad I came to visit this particular river bank.

    When seeking to understand and possibly alleviate the pain of others, it seems - as you so clearly and eloquently write - that compassion and empathy can only take us part of the way, however much we may wish otherwise.

    "I have felt pain, so I will use that memory to relate to your response to pain." is a powerful tool indeed, and coupled with imagination takes us a few steps closer.

    Acknowledging our limitations in this regard maybe allows us to approach further still.

    Hopefully, from that point of partial bridge building, it may only take a slight effort of acceptance from the other person to complete the distance.

    Or a leap of faith. Sometimes there may be no other way accross the divide.

    Or best of all, the bridge, in some aspect of our common humanity, is already there in its entirety, long before we came along.

    Learning to see it, to trust it is there and to actually walk on it might be the next task on this sort of journey to understanding.

    Thank you, Sallie, for sharing your thoughts on this.

    It is my view that only someone with a unique gift of empathy and compassion could have written this.

    David Archer
    Toronto, Canada

  2. David, thank you so much for taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment - it was such a lovely gift!

    A Twitter exchange with @TheAngryIndian inspired the post and laid bare the difficulty of expressing intent in 140 characters. The need for a Sarcasm font has been expressed; perhaps we need an Honest Question font as well.

    Progressives the world over are fighting to unite, struggling to overcome the things that separate us to build on common ground.

    Social media is a boon, of course, but as cultures, slang and experiences collide, we will stumble in our communications, as we always have.

    For those who do, I wrote this. Discovering bridges built by other hands (and thank you for that image!), or building our own, the crossing is much easier if we are met partway. If we connect through our humanity, reach out because of our humanity, and have the childlike faith that our intentions will be understood, accepted, and met, the ties we create will be stronger.