When we fail to notice the limits of how things look to us, we can inflict a great deal of harm. It is seeing-listening that opens us to human connection.
Three stories I heard this week about how deeply our physical appearance affects our lives
Her right arm in a cast and sling, this visionary and hard-working woman was stunned at how thoughtfully people responded to her apparent need for help. No one has made any such allowances for her, she noted, during times when she has actually felt a lot worse.
A courageous young woman struggling with multiple auto-immune diagnoses was dismayed when she heard other women in her online support groups describe how physicians treated them dismissively because Ankylosing Spondylitis is considered “a man’s disease.”
A skilled, team-playing and tenacious contractor who was let go from her federal position considers her options as she applies for other jobs. The medical marijuana industry attracts her. She can see herself learning about the industry and ultimately opening her own dispensary. She also sees the industry as “nontraditional,” offering her freedom to show up where she is less constrained, less hindered by how she is seen in white-male-dominated workplaces: as her gender and skin color.
Bias is another way to describe the limits of how things look to us, and limit our capacity to connect
None of us is without our filters as we make our way through life. Even amongst family, close friends and associates, our personal suffering, both emotional and physical, can be “missed” or “dismissed” because we look fine, seem cheerful, have a pretty good energy level. We display no obvious signifiers of distress. No arm in a sling. And when we talk about our distress, what we say, how we are heard, may not override the visual conclusion already reached: oh, she’s really fine.
This is one reason we often turn to people who we know are going through the same thing.
There are other settings – medical or workplace – where the biases, and the harm of our limited “seeing” go deeper. This can play out with the physician reluctant to order lab tests you ask for, or undervaluing your mood, stress, or pain symptoms. The average time from onset to diagnosis if fibromyalgia, for example, is 5-8 years. Or the lack of opportunities for women and people of color to advance and to occupy positions of influence and leadership.
When we are not aware of our filters, our biases, we are unable ourselves to be full human beings. Nor are we able to meet others as full human beings.
Seeing-Listening takes us below surface appearances, where we can be aware of our own biases and meet a fully dimensional human being
Going by my appearance, one may comment on my outfit, the bags under my eyes, or the expression on my face, and ask “What’s going on?” Then comes the listening (or not.) My tone of voice. My word choices, metaphor of the day. I may feel invited to open up – or close down. But when a friend, a colleague, or a medical professional listens to me deeply, non-judgmentally, with curiosity and nuance, I experience a renewed wholeness.
As a healer, it took me a long time to understand why my clients weren’t put off by my taking notes when I sit with them, and even why the note-taking doesn’t distract me and take my attention elsewhere. It’s about the listening I am able to presence while I take notes. A listening that includes awareness of my own filters. As I can do that, I find I am Seeing-Listening: I can take in the glorious particulars of her appearance, her story, as she sits across from me, and also the heartfulness of our shared, and flawed, human condition. As I See-Listen, an exchange of giving and receiving flows between us. And in any given moment, either of us may be receiving, either of us giving.
Even in environments fraught with structural barriers for women and people of color, when we can make space for more than transactional relationships, when we set our intention on connecting to one another, there are opportunities to meet across our differences. There are opportunities to bear one another. To appreciate one another. It is Seeing-Listening that allows another person, however different from us, to show up as the full human being they are, not as a representative of their gender or ethnicity or religious practice. Not as a boss or peer or subordinate, but as a whole human being.
It will take many types of collective efforts to remedy the coarseness of our national conversation, as well as our structural problems, the policies and practices of our government and private institutions.
But there is no choice closer at hand to us as individuals in relationship, whatever the personal or professional context. All it takes is a pause to remember: this angry/strange/different person in front of me may have more sorrows than joys, and still has a human heart. Offer the gift of Seeing-Listening, even in small ways, as you go about your day. You too may start to wonder who is the giver, who the receiver.