Reflections of A Student of Life
As I sat across the café table listening to a fellow MSW student share his beliefs about non-violent approaches to community interventions, I felt my body begin to tense. Through listening to his strong beliefs against the use of military force, I became quickly and painfully aware that within the context of our café conversation, I literally embodied what my peer believed wholeheartedly to be wrong and destructive to the human race.
In some ways, my fellow student and I have come to the MSW program at Wilfrid Laurier University from two extremely opposing walks of life, although arguably rooted in many of the same intentions. Prior to the MSW program, I worked as a Canadian Forces infantry officer, and my peer as a non-violent global human rights activist. Both of us risked our lives to act against human rights injustices and protect the lives of many considered to be innocent; what separated us was our ideological perspectives concerning the use of violence as a viable option for defense in situations of extreme violent conflict.
My fellow student studies non-violent community interventions quite extensively; from my standpoint, his studies combined with his life experiences make him an excellent voice within the field of violence related trauma. His knowledge about the use of violence, and the trauma experienced by victims and perpetrators alike, was quite extensive and admirable from my point of view.
The café conversation was multi-faceted; one emerging struggle for me stemmed from my awareness that my peer seemed unwilling to accept me as an expert within the field of my own story or the stories of war.
I challenge the idea that actions exist in a binary separation where they are always wrong or always right; in the café conversation, there was no space for a discourse around the possibility that my challenge could have merit. There was a resounding agreement in our conversation that the use of violence is traumatic; however, I felt that deep discussion was unavailable. I wanted to lean into the inquiry of right and wrong, and this seemed unavailable to us given my peer’s strong belief that violence is always wrong. Period. Could it be possible that there is more to the inquiry than that? When I am formulating a therapeutic case, this experience motivates me to ask and reflect deeply on moments where my ideological standpoint opposes that of the individual sitting across from me.
I wrestled with my experiences following the conversation with my fellow student; I realized that, although always with the best and most peaceful of intentions, I am equally guilty of allowing my own biases to be embodied within the other. For example, during a mock taped social work interview, my client expressed serious discomfort with sharing any of her vulnerabilities with anyone; instead of hearing her valid concerns for safety, I projected onto her my desire for her to feel comfortable with me. Specifically, I tried to help her go inside of her emotional body when she clearly stated to me that she was not capable of doing this. My bias was in feeling that my deep concern for her situation would contribute to helping her feel safe; unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to consult her as the expert of her own needs. I wondered, does this individual’s concerns for her safety mean that I am failing her as the ‘helper’? Who is this question about, anyway? What does it actually mean to be helpful? Instead of sitting with these questions in the moment, I became extremely distracted by the similarities in our intersecting experiences of trauma, and I lost touch with an absolutely vital aspect of being helpful: in order to be helpful, I need to first accept the other as the expert of his/her own story. What has worked for me may not work for another.
In not hearing my mock taped interview client as the expert of her own story, I was not able to focus our inquiry on resources she might possibly find helpful in her healing process. I realized through my café conversation and mock taped interview experiences that it is where my similarities intersect with the other that there is great potential to assume a role of ‘expert’, and potentially dismiss the voice of the other.
The more I reflect on the subject, the more I accept the usefulness of my biases. They can be the honorable motivations behind my actions, and can also be silencing and unsupportive. What is the tipping point in this balance between helpful and unhelpful? My inquiry has lead me to the belief that assumptions about what is best for the other are often distracting and rarely helpful if there is no space for empathetic discourse between helper and helpee during the encounter with one another. If my biases serve to silence the other, where is the space for growth?
If empathy is defined as one’s ability to flow into the lived experience of another while remaining cognitively disconnected, then it is through my perceived experience of being “othered” that gives me the motivation to draw closer to expressing more pure empathy for others. I realized through my reflection on these two experiences, that of the café conversation and that of the mock taped interview, that biases serve an extremely useful purpose and may in fact be quite honourable; when the other is not considered to be the expert of his/her own story, they can perhaps stunt the opportunity for a helpful relationship or healing encounter.
As I progress in my journey as an MSW student (and as a student of life), my intention is to interact with others without the ‘self’ and ‘other’ lens; it is my intention to see the other as the expert of his/her own story, and to find the courage to see myself as the expert in my own story. These experiences, and my reflections on them, have enhanced my learning experience; as well, they have largely contributed to a deeper and richer connection to others in my life, including the global human rights activist and the mock taped interview client.