One of my most embarrassing childhood memories occurred at a theme park. I think I was 10. While leaving the park one evening, I saw a girl. Three of her four limbs were withered, and, as if entranced, I openly stared at her. Her mother noticed and called out my behavior to my mother, and I felt incredibly ashamed.
From that encounter, I learned a slightly false lesson: Don’t look at people; don’t see their differences. And for a long time, I attempted to do just that. Literally, I didn’t make eye contact with those around me.
What I realize as an adult is that the heart of the problem with this encounter was that I actually didn’t see this girl. I can’t remember her face; I didn’t get to know her. The problem was that I honed in on only one facet of her reality and stopped there. And what’s more, I failed to recognize the fullness of her reality—the struggle, the beauty, the goodness of her.
Today, it is sometimes suggested that we shouldn’t notice certain aspects of others’—and even our own—humanity, like a person’s color, ability, or belief. However, it seems to me that to see these things in the context of the person we are looking at is to become aware of them more completely—their stories, struggles, joys, and inspirations.
We may learn, as I have from author and diversity advocate Rebecca Taussig, that not seeing her disability is not seeing her. As she shares in her book of memoir-essays, Sitting Pretty: The View from my Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, “I don’t need my paralyzed legs to be erased in order for me to be seen as able, healthy, beautiful, whole, successful, or happy.”
Taussig reminds me that it is my perception—of happiness, beauty, and wholeness—that needs to grow, especially when it comes to experiences and worldviews I don’t understand. Replace “paralyzed legs” in the sentence above with just about any other human difference you can imagine, and the sentence rings just as true.
So, how do we go about the business of truly seeing each other, beyond our assumptions, embedded stereotypes, and the sometimes-deafening rancor that underscores our modern-day friction with each other’s differences? The list below is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it’s a start in the direction of keeping our eyes open to the multi-faceted realities that we each live.
These days, we can literally spend the whole day taking in news, podcasts, interviews, and videos created by our favorite YouTubers and social media sensations. But to truly listen to someone’s story or experience requires interaction. It is less about consuming and more about entering into another person’s reality.
An article from the journal Arts and Health explores the concept of “deep listening.” The article touches on the topic of music therapy, but I find the concept also seems applicable to navigating differences. Deep listening, as defined by the article, is:
a form of listening that “digs below the surface of what is heard … unlocking layer after layer of imagination, meaning, and memory down to the cellular level of human experience” (Oliveros, 2005). Fundamental to deep listening are [composer Pauline] Oliveros’ considerations of the place of individual sounds within their acoustical environment, linked to an awareness of the constantly shifting relations that occur between the individual and the collective.
The authors then go on to discuss different “listening stances” such as “cultural listening,” “social listening,” and “therapeutic listening.”
In an interpersonal framework, the idea of “listening stances” is striking. To deeply listen well, we might have to listen from the perspective of someone whose experience we know very little about. At other times, we might be listening from the position of sharing part of our interlocutor’s story, though not his/her individual experiences. Some interactions might require our restraint and forbearance, as our interlocutor might share their experience in a way that feels uncomfortable to us. Some interactions might require our response; others, our silent acknowledgment; still others, more active participation. To be attuned to what our conversation partner needs can be as simple as asking, “What do you need from me?”
A mainstay to working to see and know those around us is to ask questions. These may be hard questions (“How have I failed to see you?” “What most bothers you about our society today?”). They may questions that express personal interest (“What has been inspiring you lately?” “What brings you joy?”). A portable hospitality, curiosity invites your interlocutor to share their heart and experiences. What’s more, curiosity can also be the springboard for change in societies.
As professor Richard Phillips notes in a 2016 article in Muse, “Curiosity has the potential to be fundamentally transformative because it has scope to explore and problematize, rather than simply navigate, existing categories, and the distances and differences they open up. It can disrupt and recast social categories and taxonomies in transgressive and creative ways.”
For example, when I engage with a person who differs with me on a variety of social issues, instead of dismissing them into a particular political category, my invitation is not to narrow but expand my view of the person before me. Perhaps they identify as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, but in the context of the whole person in front of me, what this means for the way they live their lives is incredibly nuanced. What’s behind that decision—the lived experiences of the person before me—is what I want to seek, and knowing the person as a multifaceted being becomes my primary focus.
It’s quite easy to disengage, especially when we find ourselves face to face with discomfort. Perhaps a person’s reality or a particular issue feels beyond the realm of our experience, or maybe we aren’t prepared to discuss a particular topic. In the face of feeling uncomfortable, we may go silent or try to ignore or change the subject.
According to the Gottman Institute, one particular way this discomfort might manifest is through stonewalling, where, “In a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded.” This behavior can be experienced not only in in-person interactions but in online comment sections, as commenters “walk away” from the conversation after declaring they’ve had enough. The Gottman Institute recommends people take breaks from a conversation when things start to feel overwhelming. The goal is not to end the conversation, but to pause it until both parties are ready to return. The desire to stay engaged says, “Yes, I see you. Yes, I want to keep learning.”
A January 2021 article from the American Psychological Association observes that polarization and fear are linked: “‘One reason we tend to become fixated and polarized is because of individual and collective trauma that associates with a profound sense of insignificance,’ says [professor Kirk] Schneider. In this state, people may feel that they don’t matter and fear ‘ultimately being wiped away or extinguished.’”
The fear of difference, dissent, of approaching a reality we don’t understand can feel overwhelming. But, as Taussig incisively remarks, “When someone’s difference scares you, that’s the precise moment to lean in, shut up, and listen.” The antidote to fear, then, is reframing—to approach a person’s differences in viewpoint, values, and appearance humbly, with a desire to know them, and not merely what makes them different from myself.
Paradoxically, it is in acknowledging differences that I make room for discovering both similarities between myself and others and also opportunities for personal growth. Truly seeing the other is an act of love, one in which I want to engage in more readily and more often. It’s an ongoing process, but it starts by looking up.