As a pioneer in the field of grief, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to hold workshops all over the world. In these workshops people didn’t just learn about grief; they had a chance to do deep grieving of their own. A friend of mine staffed a women’s only workshop that was held in South Africa.
Even though it was during the days of apartheid, Elisabeth insisted that the women share rooms. They would sleep together in large rooms filled with bunk beds. They would eat together in the same dining room. Wealthy white women. Poor black women. Women whose lives never intersected except in the roles of boss and servant.
The first night the tension was unbearable and the staff feared the whole thing was going to blow up in their faces. Then they got down to work. One by one, women started sharing their stories with the group. A black woman told of a childhood made unbearable with the rapes of a father or molestations of a brother. The thing was, many of the white women had the same stories.
Their lives could not have been more different. They lived in completely different worlds. And yet, after the externals of class and position were peeled away they weren’t so different at all. Black and white, they’d lost people whom they’d loved. Black and white, they’d been profoundly hurt. Rich, poor, black, white… when you open them up our hearts are not that different. Hearts beat. Hearts hope. Hearts hurt.
On the last night of workshops the participants traditionally put on a talent show. On this night, black and white women came in together. They’d shredded paper to make traditional tribal leggings. Together they came in doing a traditional tribal dance.
I don’t know what happened to those women after they left the workshop. But I can promise you that they never looked at the “other” in quite the same way.
One of the benefits of doing the work I do is I get to hear people’s stories. From time to time someone comes into my office whom I’d probably think of as “other” out in the world. But then they tell their stories. They share their pain and their fear and their shame and their guilt. And I am reminded we are not so different.
I truly believe that if there is to be healing in our current culture, it will not come without the telling of our stories. We need places where people can speak. And spaces where people can listen with open hearts. Not the kind of listening that’s really looking for places to attack, places to prove the other person wrong. But the kind of listening, as St. Francis says, that seeks to understand as much to be understood. We don’t have to always end in agreement. But if we can hear each other, then we do not have to shoot each other.
More about this next time…