“How do you feel about that?” It was a big question for Marty; it was an important question for her, it was a question she taught me ask.
First you ask, “How do you feel about that?”, then you work on learning to listen to the response, then you learn to quit saying, “Well, you should just quit feeling that way, that’s dumb.”
Uh, yeah, guess what was dumb, saying that.
Yes, I know, how could someone enlightened ever utter those clearly stupid words? Clearly I haven’t always been that enlightened. Clearly, living with Marty and listening to her has led me to great wisdom.
Marty taught me, not without some screaming and shouting, that other people have feelings that I may or may not understand. Other people may have feelings that make little sense to me and it doesn’t matter if I agree with the feeling.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’m not in charge of how other people feel. Other people get to feel based on their perspective and life experiences, I can’t change it, I can’t fix it, and my thinking their feelings are stupid is….well stupid.
I learned from experience that Marty saw and understood things differently from me. As much as we were alike, our life experiences were different enough, our psyches diverged enough that we saw things differently and felt different things.
It was ridiculous for me to pass judgment on her feelings based on what I felt, on my experiences. She was allowed to have her own feelings, she was allowed to be sad, happy, mad, or distraught even if I wasn’t and to discount those feelings were discounting her and just plain wrong. We have to try and understand another’s perspective before saying, “Well, it’s dumb to feel that way.”
So guess what white people, we don’t get to tell the black folks in Ferguson, Missouri or any other place how they should feel or act. We don’t get to say you shouldn’t feel mistreated and mistrusting just because we have never felt that way.
If someone I have lived and loved with for 40 years has had different feelings and experiences it’s a lead pipe cinch that African Americans will have had different experiences from my white, privileged self. Our experience as white folk is different than those who have too often been mistreated because of pigmentation. We don’t get to pass judgment because we don’t agree with the feelings of anger, fear and distrust. You can disagree, but you can’t say it’s stupid for those folks to feel anger and fear.
The simple fact is we don’t have to know or understand or agree or validate those feelings. We do have to respect that other people legitimately, because of their lives, see things and feel things differently, not better, not smarter, not dumber, just different.
These feelings, these emotions aren’t always productive, I get that. In fact, they are sometimes counterproductive and are expressed in ways that are damaging. That does not negate the fact that people feel for different reasons and we don’t get to discount those emotions. It works best if we can try and understand why people feel the way they do. Frankly it’s not that hard.
Marty’s mother, Jean, once wrote me an incredibly nice note and thanked me for loving Marty. She thought I brought out the best in Marty and thought I had helped her learn empathy.
Truth, Marty is the one who helped me with empathy and understanding; she is the one that taught me to ask, “How do you feel about that?” She is the one that taught me that all I needed to do was accept other’s feelings, not pass judgment on them for feeling something I didn’t understand.
I still ask Marty how she feels about stuff. More often than not I get a standard, “I don’t know” response. I suspect that is the truth. Through her stroke fogged brain she probably doesn’t precisely know how she feels about something.
It doesn’t matter. I know she still feels, I know it still matters to me and I know how she feels belongs to her. My job is to ask.