Ultimately, Buddhist teachings tell us there are no reference points. This is actually what the teaching on Emptiness means, if I may be so bold as to give it reference points - not that nothing has meaning or heart (quite the opposite) but that in order to experience ourselves and the world fully, we need to drop/empty out our cache of reference points - like/dislike, me/not me. I find this especially salient in communication, and, of course, there are formal training programs in Compassionate Communication, Non-Violent Communication and Green Light Conversations. I have talked about this before in my previous posts on listening (recently re-published in the journal Medical Encounters) and speaking, but today I was struck especially by how deep these misunderstandings go.
Dylan and I had a good conversation this morning about how this relates to non-violence and lessening aggression, especially in relationship to our internal haters and critic voices, and also relating to others who are a lot like us, but, of course, not.
A lot of the time, I hope to understand what is going on for someone else. I want to get a sense of their pain or pleasure, so I can help them feel less alone. Feeling alone is one of my biggest fears, so if I can still the sense of isolation for someone else, it's a consolation I feel personally invested in.
There's a great paradox in this, and as a wonderful teacher once told me, where there is paradox, there is truth. In my writing classes I call this "the personal is the universal" principle - the more personal, specific, detailed and only-you the writing is, the more others will relate to it - but relate to it where you are, as opposed to where they are. The more we try to wash out, generalize or universalize our experience, the more folks will turn it into their own experience, and completely miss the subtleties of the writer/person behind it all. This is obviously true in conversation and "real life," not just in writing.
The graphic novelist/cartoonist and historian Scott McCloud has a lovely map of cartoon faces that I often use in teaching this principle. What McCloud says is that the more generic a face is (think Charlie Brown) the more people will relate/ project their own experience on to it. The more specific and stylized a face is (think Dick Tracey) the more a sense of character as different than reader emerges. What I love about this method of displaying universal versus personal is that we can see, literally, the template humans use for relating to others. In writing, in life, if we don't connect enough with our own experience, if we present ourselves as a blank template and try to erase over our own quirks and neuroticism and personal wisdom, the more others can see what they want to see. The more we are ourselves, wholly and purely, without any attempt to cover up the "bad" parts or emphasize the "good" parts, the harder it becomes for others to see us as anyone other than who we are.
But the funny twist in this is that because, as viewers/listeners/readers, a generic idea is presented to us and we project ourselves into it, there's also very little challenge and very little heart. In fact, even in describing this I am feeling too conceptual, which is where all of this goes in the long run - away from experience, turned into a generic idea, far from humans, far from heart.
So let me get personal.
It feels like a risk, often, to tell people I am bisexual. Why? Because there's a lot of concept about bisexuality out there in society. Assumptions such as the following are really pretty common, if people are honest about their assumptions with themselves and with me:
-I am attracted to everyone, and, therefore, a bit sketchy to be around
-I am non-monogamous (logic: because I am attracted to everyone how could I only be with one?)
-I am super into sex (especially non-normative sex)
-I am either actually straight or actually gay ("100%") but afraid to admit it so faking being bisexual
These might sound a bit harsh, and chances are that your first response is something like "But Miriam, I don't feel that way about it. It must be others who feel that way." That's not how this works. Honesty means not backing down from our own judgments. I have even felt these things about myself, internalized them, through experience or direct reference by others.
Either I am Dick Tracey - a series of personal experiences so odd to others that they cannot relate and distance me - or I am so generic - a template of a face others can project on to - that I am never really me. It's not like I can tell you who I really am - you can only listen/watch/ask questions and eventually suss out a series of nuances, flavors, sensations that feel pretty "Miriam-like" and "this-bisexual-like."
As I often tell my students, we need reference points. Try driving without them, hell, even walking. Reference points and concepts aren't bad things. And certainly empathy isn't bad. The question is, for me, always, when have I crossed over from being open to whatever they describe and not trying to understand in a conscious, logical way (honestly, how many lives are actually logical?) into pure concept. The longer I know someone - dare I say it - the longer anyone knows someone - the riskier this gets. I used to be able to call Dylan out on her shit a lot more easily when we met. But now I have very solid ideas about who she is, and often they are very wrong. Not morally wrong, and perhaps in the ballpark, but I have made them too solid, too specific - a Dick Tracey in my mind - and I miss who she actually is, in that moment: constantly shifting, nuanced, never the same.
In a June excerpt in Harper's Magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich, of Nickel and Dimed fame, talks about animals and our concepts about them. This line in particular really struck me: "The problem is not that animals are different from humans in some general way -- less gracious, perhaps, or more impulsive and unpredictable -- but that it makes very little sense to say what animals are like or not like." She is, of course, speaking of the danger of concept, or reference points.
There's not really a conclusion to this, and certainly not some kind of hard and fast rule. Mostly I think it is important, in my own communications, to allow a lot of space around others' experiences. I find myself saying less and less "I see" or "I understand" and more and more saying "I hear that you feel that" and "Tell me more about that." These aren't pop-psychology therapist things, they are respect for individual experiences. Less and less guessing and more and more listening. Less and less relating myself to the other person in fear that we somehow won't connect if I don't, more and more trusting that the more they are themselves, fully, without me as a reference point, the more we can be together, fully, as human beings.