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.

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