“You don’t know what it’s like!”

In my last post, I talked about how a person’s experience can be held against them. In this post, I want to talk about how a person’s lack of experience also can be held against them. It’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” right?

“You don’t know what it’s like!” I’d be surprised if you have never been told this, or something like it, particularly if you’ve ever spend much time around kids, who sometimes assume it would be impossible for any adult to understand the trials of being a teenager. After all, adults have never been young, right?

All kidding aside, lack of experience can make for some tricky relational navigation. Let’s say I’m talking to one of my friends about what things were like for me growing up. My friend can’t relate to my experiences, because her’s were different.  She has a great relationship with her dad and was generally far more sheltered than I was. Here I am, angry, hurting, spitting and snarling, and we both know that by my standards, her life was cake. What does she say to me? How can she advise me? Encourage me? Comfort me? Almost anything she could offer, I could fend off just by saying, “You don’t know what it’s like.”

And it would be true. She doesn’t.

Let’s move on to another conversation. My roommate, who is going to be a darn good teacher some day soon, had to write a reflection paper for school on generational poverty. She’d been to a conference where the featured speaker was Dr. Donna Beegle. Dr. Beegle grew up in generational poverty and managed to climb out of it. She now tries to educate inexperienced folk about poverty. If you’re interested, you can read all about it on her site, but I’m talking about Carey, who had a paper to write, and she was stuck. You know what was choking her? She doesn’t “know what it’s like.” What could she have to say to people drowning in hardship she has never experienced? Not only does she lack the potentially helpful voice of experience, people who are struggling can be quick to snap out rejection and question what right Carey would have to even open her mouth. After all, she doesn’t know what it’s like.

And that’s true. She doesn’t.

But here’s a question – do I or anybody else who has ever been hurt have the right to demand the silence of those unwounded?

I’d say no. Even if I don’t agree with what they have to say, even if I think they’re out of touch with what I think is reality, even if they’re pushing all of my buttons and sore spots, I don’t have the right to force them to be quiet. It’s pretty accusatory, aggressive behavior to demand someone’s silence and/or agreement by saying, “You don’t know what it’s like.” It is behavior that starts to blur the line between victim and victimizer. Maybe I’m just messed up (which is likely enough, but I bet I’ve plenty of company!), but it is too easy to use my past to bully somebody into doing what I want.

Here’s another question – have we nothing to learn from those with different experiences?

I had lots of bad experiences as a kid. There’s no rollback, do-over option. Those are my experiences, and I can’t change that. I do have time ahead of me still to learn new things and have other, hopefully less injurious experiences, but that’s not necessarily going to make up for what I lost. Relying on new experiences to learn new things is also pretty slow. Two or three good experiences probably won’t suffice to retrain years of bad habits. Fortunately, there are options. You know what Proverbs says? Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 19:20 says this: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” I can’t go back and experience what it’s like to have a great father, but I can listen to my friends who do. And if I start squawking and squirming, you know what they can say to me? “You don’t know what it’s like.”

And, oh, is that true! I don’t. I don’t know what it’s like, but I’m so glad that other people have different experiences. I’m glad they can tell me about their lives, and that not only can I be happy for them, I can also learn something about my life by listening to their stories and letting the truths in them challenge the truths I’ve experienced. That’s not easy – it’s honestly easier to try shutting them down – but I’d say the insight I’ve gained has been well worth the discomfort of being challenged. Just because somebody hasn’t struggled through my exact struggles doesn’t mean that there is nothing of worth in what they might have to say about my situation.

Personally, I hope that people like my friends, people who haven’t had some of the negative life experiences that others have had, continue to speak up. I hope they continue to share. I hope that they faithfully continue to offer what they know to be true and right even if they “don’t know what it’s like.” I hope they never allow themselves to be silenced by another’s sneering pain and, with tenderness and courage and grace and love, continue to talk about goodness and justice and hope. I hope they know that what they have to say, their often quiet, sometimes tentative words, are just as important as what anybody else might have to say.