One of the challenges when discussing my experiences with depression, transition and other aspects of my life with people who do not have similar experiences is that they don’t have the same points of references. Likewise when I hear about the experiences of those living on reserves in poverty and third world conditions I lack a point of reference to truly understand their experiences. I can, however, make the effort to listen to what they are saying.
When we take the time to listen and learn from the experiences of others, especially when they do not share reference points, we expand our own horizons. Actively listening to these experiences will likely be uncomfortable. Once these feelings start we can respond in a number of ways.
First, we can close our ears and try to hide from the feelings and shut down. We don’t listen to what the person is saying and we don’t try to understand or empathise. When we do this we reinforce our view of the person telling the story as ‘the other’ someone that is lessened because they are not part of our community or identity. Once we categorize someone as ‘other’ it is a lot easier to continue to ignore injustice being perpetrated against them.
Second, the response being made can be patronizing. Rather than respecting what the person is saying we respond in a condescending manner. What we are telling the person when we do this is that we either do not believe them or that their experience isn’t valid and doesn’t have value.
Third, we can stay silent and actively listen to what is being said. We can work to empathise with what is being said, even though it may be uncomfortable. This is probably the most difficult response. Empathising with the struggles and plight of other people is not easy and may trigger responses in ourselves that we don’t expect. It is when we listen and work to understand what other people have experienced, even though we haven’t shared that experience, that we expand our own horizons and can then take that knowledge to work with them to help them heal and to help make the world a better place.