Thoughts on Privilege, Listening, Empathy, Discretion & Brokenness

I’m 33, and I think I’m finally starting to internalize what privilege means. I’ve always perceived its framing as a negative. “You have privilege, and that’s not fair.” To which my thought has always been: “Okay, so what am I supposed to do about it?” Denying it is foolish, and not using it (which is what I’ve tried to do for a long time) is also foolish. I feel like the best use of my privilege is to exercise it in ways that are the opposite of patronization.

The easiest method to start, for me, is to listen with intention to those who don’t share my privilege and have things to say. So the Under 30 open mic at Guide to Kulchur every week is a good chance for me to do that. I’m the only old person there. Meanwhile, upstairs, there’s a poetry chapbook called “For the Young Poets of Cleveland” written by an old white guy who is probably in his late 50s. He was a grown-ass man when I was 4. The eponymous poem is a list of rules for young poets to follow. The second poem is a tribute to d.a. levy. That pins this guy squarely to the privilege of every other old white guy poet in town who thinks poetry began and ended with the Beats. No young poet is going to pick up that chapbook with anything other than derision in mind. The dude ain’t got a clue because he’d rather be didactic than listen to what actual young poets have to say. That’s what I’m trying not to be. (UPDATE: And thanks to Andy, in the comments below, I’ve learned that the guy hasn’t even lived in the area for 30 years.)

So I listen. Hard. And I try to release my easily reached privileged judgments, because that’s not any sort of productive.

Next up is empathy. I’ve always been pretty good at empathy, but I realized that I know that and have therefore not been practicing it. A lazy empathy. When I listen hard, I can’t be lazily empathetic. There are plenty of situations that I haven’t been in that make it hard for me to understand what and why a person is feeling the way they are feeling, but their feelings are still valid. There’s no such thing as an invalid feeling. I’ve been working really hard with my son on this, trying to develop a healthy understanding of feelings and their causes; a place we can both feel safe sharing. I’m trying to extend that empathy to everyone else that shares things with me. Maybe I haven’t been in the exact situation, but trying to understand, and asking to understand get me most of the way there. Chances are I’ve had the same feelings myself once in awhile.

What I’ve most recently awoken to is the virtue of discretion. Typically discretion is assigned to one’s personal affairs, but that’s small potatoes compared to its exercise when it comes to the affairs that another shares with you. I’ve told many people over the years that secrets die with me, and I’m still batting a thousand on that count. I never really thought of that intention as something particularly valuable, but lately I’ve realized that it shouldn’t be denied. I know of not a few friendships that have disintegrated because something was shared in confidence, but the confidant could not keep their trap shut. Few things need more care than the vulnerability a friend entrusts to you. Friendship can be treated far too flippantly.

All of this sort of ties into a final idea I’ve been chewing on. The concept that we are all partly broken. The need to recognize that fact, the need to understand that people handle their broken parts in different ways. Some pretend they are whole, some pretend they are wholly broken. There are as many ways to perform brokenness as there are ways to be broken. If you understand that, accept your own broken bits, the practice of intentional listening, empathy & discretion becomes very fulfilling. You know you’re doing better at ensuring nothing you do makes chips and shatters on another person. You’ll still do it, because you’re partly broken too, but maybe someone else will listen, empathize, and honor your sharing.