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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