photo from Northern Voice last weekend by Chris Heuer
I confess to still being an insensitive guy (though some people would say “insensitive guy” is a redundant expression).
I’ve been trying to get better at this, but I think it’s in my nature to be selfish and self-preoccupied and not spend enough time thinking about other people or their feelings. I suspect it’s in most people’s nature. I know what to do (spend more time listening to people, pay attention with your whole body, respond promptly to requests and comments, don’t procrastinate, say ‘thank you’ a lot) — but I just don’t do it.
Lately I’ve been spending more time with people who are sensitive, partly in the hopes that they’ll be a positive influence on me. I was really surprised, then, when one of those people, Nancy White, confided that she was really distressed because she’d unintentionally hurt someone — a participant at her presentation at Northern Voice. I would normally not blog about such a personal and painful occurrence, but since it’s all been put in the public record by the participants, I figure it’s OK to talk further about it. It’s actually causing me as much distress as it’s causing Nancy.
Here’s what happened:
Just to add a bit more to the story (since I was in the room at the time), when Nancy left Meg’s drawing to move on to one of the many others up on the wall, Meg (I didn’t know who she was at the time) cried out in protest (something like “but wait…”) in a voice that sent shivers up my spine. After that I forgot about it — there just wasn’t enough time to dwell on a single drawing, and the time for Nancy’s presentation was quickly running out.
No one was to blame. No one was really blaming anyone. But there was pain anyway, and it’s clear (from the blog posts and communications since, and from the comments to the blog posts) that the pain was deep, and isn’t going away easily.
There is a line in the movie Peaceful Warrior in which a young athlete, trying to impress his mentor with what he’s learned from quiet contemplation, from “gathering information from the inside”, says “The ones who are hardest to love are usually those who need it the most.” Nancy pointed me to a post by Chris Lott, another participant at Northern Voice, in which he says something similar:
I’Äôve been reflecting for the past few days on something Nancy White was talking about at lunch a few days ago. without going into too much detail, her point was that I would better understand someone who she knows that I admire and am constantly vexed with if I understood that person had a hard time accepting love.
For the past 18 months or so it has felt like everything I examined with any intensity came down to issues relating to scale. I suspect my next 18 months (at least) will be consumed with the problematic (sorry, I was brought up a postmodernist, where ’Äúproblematic’Äù is an acceptable noun) of love and all the things that cluster around it.
In a conversation earlier today about all this, I said to Nancy: “I suspect this kind of unintentional hurt occurs all the time without us ever being aware of it — it’s hideous to think about, but even those of us full of love and sensitivity probably inflict pain and hurt on others by what we do (and what we fail to do) every day. And the more social we are, the more we probably do it…I’m just thinking about how much I’ve hurt people I know and care about by what I’ve done and not done in the past few weeks…ouch…Responsibility is scary…no wonder so many refuse to take any.”
Nancy replied, and I agree, that (a) we can’t help unintentionally hurting other people, though we can probably learn to spot, and help others show us, cues that we’ve done so, and (b) the more people we know and spend time with, and the more open we are with them, the more pain we are likely to cause. I also think the actor in Peaceful Warrior and Chris are right that (c) as much as most of us want attention and appreciation, most of us don’t really want to be loved.
All of these truths are about Responsibility and its burden. When we stand up in front of a group as an ‘authority’, or talk to an individual one-to-one, or just communicate wordlessly with someone, we are being asked to take some responsibility for their feelings, their understanding, and even their love. When a member of the audience asks us a question and we answer in a way that is unsatisfactory to them (for whatever reason) they are hurt. When we say something to someone that makes them flinch or frown or leads to a ‘pregnant pause’, they are hurt. When someone looks at us, perhaps in invitation to some further communication and we turn away, they are hurt. It is not intentional. No one is to blame. But there has been a Failure of Responsibility. The word ‘responsibility’ comes from the Latin words meaning to promise back. All of this pain is the result of unintended broken promises.
Perhaps this is why so many people wall themselves away physically and emotionally, physically so they never have to accept this dreadful and unintentional responsibility, and emotionally so they won’t be hurt by others’ unintended failures of responsibility. In this sense, to be a social being, a teacher, a lover, a conversant, a member of community, is an act of great courage. It is the acceptance of enormous responsibility not to hurt or let down those with whom we dance in love, conversation and community. To do our best, not to “do no harm” (for that is impossible if we are social creatures at all), but rather to be responsible, to live up to the promise back to all with whom we engage. To respond.
There is another, safer form of social discourse — performance (from the Latin meaning supply what is needed). It is substantially one way, from performer to audience, and although there is a social contract in performance, and the performer has a ‘responsibility’ to inform or entertain, s/he is not required to ‘respond’. That is the role of the audience. If the audience fails to respond, it is the performer who suffers the pain. The performer need only ‘supply what is needed'; s/he is not ‘responsible’ for the audience’s reaction, response. That is up to them.
At one time, most education was performance. The instructor spoke and left the podium. The learning, the response, was the student’s job. At one time, most business was performance. The supplier produced and delivered, and the contract was done. The buyer (caveat emptor) was responsible for the actual use of the product. For some people, sex, and perhaps even ‘giving’ love, is and can only be a performance, an act, a supplying of what is needed. No responsibility. Take it or leave it. It is the recipient who must ‘respond’, take the responsibility. She the respondent (for it is mostly men who are the performers) is expected to appreciate, pay attention, and respond appropriately (with devotion, obedience, and perhaps multiple orgasms). No wonder we all want to love (and be adored by those we love) but we don’t really want to be loved (with the responsibility that places on us).
Today art, education, commerce, and love are, for the most part, no longer one-way performance activities. They are participatory, two-way, conversational, collaborative. We all have equal responsibility for their success, and the roles are blurring and disappearing. We all have to respond to each other, live up to the promise back to others we engage with. We all have the responsibility to be sensitive to others, and to know how our response (and even our lack of response) can cause anguish to them.
No one is to blame. We just have to learn the newest and most important social skill — improvisation. In my recent post on improvisation I defined its essential elements as follows:
The competencies include: active listening, paying full attention, inventing, self-expression, reacting quickly, remembering, teaching/helping quickly, learning quickly, letting go and letting come. There is a zen-like state that you can get into if you have, and practice using, these competencies: It’s a combination of extreme alertness and extreme relaxation. That’s only a paradox to the incompetent. Arguably, it is our natural state.
The tactics include building and drawing on others’ actions (“yes, and…” rather than “yes, but…”), exploring, reflecting, complementing, mimicking,and what someone has called “moving with and moving against”.
The attributes include intimacy, engagement, true ‘whole is more than the sum of the parts’ collaboration, and reciprocation.
If we were all good at improvisation, the way wild animals play with each other, energetically but somehow harmlessly, perhaps no one would be hurt. What do you think?
No one was intentionally hurt in the making of this article.
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