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Edward Hopper, "Rooms by the Sea," 1951. From the collection of Yale University Art Gallery.

Edward Hopper, "Rooms by the Sea," 1951. From the collection of Yale University Art Gallery.

BLOG— The stakes of staying open

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As a reporter for the News, I sometimes tap into a certain place inside. I try to listen from that place, and I try to write from that place, too. I don’t always succeed, of course. Empathy is like a frequency — vulnerable to many forms of interference. Nervousness, self-consciousness, self-preoccupation, fear. All of these feelings can jam the signal I would otherwise hope to receive. A moment (of what? of something) may arise in an interview and it’s up to me to press a bit, to gently probe. Self-clouded, I may not recognize the moment, or I may even actively fear and shun it. Self-clouded, I may lack the presence that allows such a moment to happen at all.

But sometimes when a story touches on the very spots I most wish to avoid, something else occurs. Rather than fuzzing my reception, the story’s nearness to my own experience seems to open a channel for really hearing. The kind of hearing that involves far more than the ears.

When I wrote about Zay Crawford this week, I felt a channel open. Now, I am not claiming anything for the story other than this: writing it felt, still feels, profound. It felt, and feels, like a story I could tell about myself — though with a different set of issues, different struggles, different time and place and people. Everything altogether different except the human need for acceptance that vibrates at the story’s center. Or call it something else. Call it what it is: the human need for love.

“What is love? What is love? There has to be a foundation of love,” Zay’s grandmother Eleanor mused last week. Zay’s other grandmother, Kit, also invoked the word. “We have to believe in the love that we are,” she said. I think she meant we’re made from love — and made for love. A paradox. We already have, and have to give, what we also so deeply need to receive.

One of the ways people from stigmatized groups seek to protect — to love — their own experience is by telling those outside their group, “You can’t understand.” This makes sense to me. An outsider’s assumption of understanding — especially in the absence of extended and careful listening — can be as damaging as a refusal to try to understand. Indeed, it is often that refusal in another form. Besides, not one of us on this earth likes other people to speak for us without the chance to speak for ourselves.

And yet. “You can’t understand,” applied literally and fully, discounts empathy. It posits what seems to me a painful world of ultimate isolation, of within-group common experience but disconnection from the greater and wildly various human whole. I do not despair of my capacity to learn to walk in another’s shoes, mainly because one or two people in my life have learned to walk in mine. They haven’t “got” me perfectly; they aren’t me. But they have brought their deep engagement with their own experience into healing touch with mine. We connect on the basis of human feeling — the one or two or three big hurts that everyone has. And the one or two or three big forms of heart that everyone also has.

“We’re all human and that’s unique and individual and yet shared,” Kit Crawford said last week. Another paradox.

I had a rare encounter last Friday with new but true friends in the village. They invited my husband and me into their home for a glass of wine. That spur-of-the-moment invitation turned into four hours of conversation on topics that ranged from family relationships to spiritual beliefs. I would like to say the experience was beautiful. Well, it was. But it was also an experience that left me a bit shaken. The place inside, the place I try to write from, is one of vulnerability. In that place, I believe, is our deepest shared humanity. Yet how hard it is to consistently inhabit! Some part of me is always trying to close, which is not to say heal, the wound.

And then I had Zay’s story to write. And then I remembered the stakes of staying with the human moment that opens, that opens, that always wants to open.


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