Three Words I'm Retiring
The three words I'm now retiring from most of my conversations are"I can't imagine". It's not because my imagination is so vast and creative that I am retiring the phrase but rather because I don't give my imagination enough of a chance to shine...and there are some contexts in which, I am learning, that it really needs to shine.
We have all been there. You have been there. You're going through a hard time in one way or another, you decide to tell this to someone and they respond with "I can't imagine what that's like".
But when they tell you that they "can't imagine", how do you feel? Better? Indifferent? I think that most of us, even if it is unconsciously, feel a little worse. We don't feel validated or affirmed (and let's be honest, a little validation and/or affirmation is always appreciated) --- we instead feel a little let down...maybe even torn down...alone with our hard situation.
Maybe you are in the grocery store with toddlers just trying to get a few staples without a tantrum (or two). You look exhausted, and the gym-dude who just came for a quick protein-powder refill before heading to his afternoon workout beside you says, "that's gotta suck...screaming kids? I can't even imagine". Thanks gym-dude...for nothing.
Or, on a more serious note, let's say you're like me whose skin is not black. More than ever before in my lifetime have I seen ("seen" being the operative word) black folks protesting, crying, grieving, venting, and fighting for things that I have never cried about, grieved over, vented about or fought for... I genuinely "can't imagine" what it's like to be in their shoes. And I am learning now (through a lot of listening to the black folks in my world in both conversations and sadly confrontations) that saying "I can't imagine" to my black brothers and sisters is not helpful, nor is it merely unhelpful, but it can actually be hurtful (if not harmful).
Here's a deeper analysis on this issue from my friend Jon Corbin (father of FIVE! Imagine his trips to the grocery store?) from his essay "I Can't Imagine: How Empathy Helps in Turbulent Times"
The conventional line, one I have heard many many times, is: “I could never fully understand what it’s like to walk in your shoes.” In my experience, this is an incomplete sentiment. And when it is spoken to me, it only serves to create distance between us. Because when people say this, I fear they are giving themselves license to avoid the hard work of trying to figure it out.
I firmly believe that our beings — our minds, emotions, and souls — come equipped with empathy. But empathy is a tool that we must learn to use.
Maybe we will never understand what it’s like to walk in someone's shoes, but should that mitigate our efforts? Will we give up attempting at all and succumb to apathy? Telling me you “can’t imagine” is an ineffective statement. It brings us no closer. You may feel empathetic, but we are not connected — and connection can lead to strength and encouragement for both of us.
So here’s what I want you to do ...Try. What if you tried to imagine?
If you try to imagine, you will feel pain. You will start to feel some of the weight a person is forced to bear. It will hurt. You will have to resist the urge to run from the pain. Because if you stay — stay in the moment and allow yourself to feel — your empathy, imagination, and resourcefulness will be sparked.
For the last few years I have been in the battle against apathy, against indifference --- or what I sometimes call "meh-ness" where I'm shrugging my proverbial shoulders. If it is true, as Corbin wrote, that we as beings are born equipped with the potential to be empathetic beings, then I want to be so skilled with this "tool" that everyone I come in contact with feels just a little built-up after having been in contact with me then they were before. Why? Because people who are built-up tend to build up others just as those who are torn down tend to tear down others.
If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, if you choose to consider more than a cursory glance towards the burden that someone bears, it will change the way you think. You will start to consider questions like:
If this was me ...
How would I be feeling? What would my daily experience be? What would I need? What would help me get through this? What would encourage me? What might ease my load?
Mind blown! So simple yet so potentially impactful and helpful to (in this context, black folks) but also to anyone who has it rough in any context. An example that's even closer to home: my wife. How many times has she been forced to bear a weight that I have insensitively said "I can't imagine?" --- burdens that come with being married to me (😃), being a mother (before or during a pandemic), being black, being a professional, and more?
I don't want to run from feeling her pain. I don't want to run from my daughter or son's pain. I don't want to run my colleague's pain or even that of the person handing me my coffee in the drive-thru (and they often have a lot of pain we don't see). I want to stay. I don't ever want to give myself licence to avoid the hard work of figuring it out again. I want to see, not just with my eyes but with my mind's eye ----my imagination---what others are going through. My hope is that even if I can't help them actually get through it, then at the very least, I can assure them that they are not alone in that moment
I think this is one mark of being a Hope-Full.
*For more about Aubrey, Hello Hope Canada and to book him to speak, click HERE