Category: Rants

Experience, Painful Lack

“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.

Experience, Sometime Foe

There’s a proverb commonly used about experience. It says, “Experience is the best teacher.” People certainly seem to believe that when it comes to jobs. Having some work experience can certainly make it easier to get hired. I’d say fire and heat is another area where we’re great believers in the teaching power of experience. As Tolkien wrote, “The burned hand teaches best.” One of the reasons I trust my doctor when he gives me a diagnosis is because he’s experienced. The checker at the supermarket who has been there a few years is definitely faster than the brand new one. I’d rather take my car to a mechanic who has some experience than one who doesn’t. Pilots should definitely be experienced. I don’t want to book a flight on somebody’s first ever attempt.

Experience, while not the be-all-end-all (other factors, like education, work ethic, and a good attitude are important, too), has advantages. People with it can work more smoothly and efficiently. Common pitfalls are generally more adroitly avoided, and experienced people fumble less. Somebody who knows the territory usually gets lost less than somebody who has never been there before.

So if education is twelve kinds of awesome, why is it that sometimes having experience is held against you? What makes some kinds of experience a “bad thing,” not to be trusted, or somehow a problem? It’s almost like there’s sometimes a prejudice in place.

See, my dad wasn’t the world’s best dad. He wasn’t the world’s worst, either, but he was closer to worst than best. He beat my sibs and I and did other things that loving fathers aren’t supposed to do to their children. Abuse and neglect are strong themes in my childhood story, making for lots of hard experiences, and I most certainly did learn things from those experiences. I will be the FIRST to admit that some of what I learned was bad, like how to hurt and manipulate other people. Being afraid of my father is not a good thing to have learned, either.

Other people’s reactions to my story can be pretty interesting. Some people are very sympathetic and supportive. Others can clearly relate all too well, some are unsympathetic, and then there’s another group. They acknowledge that I was hurt, but then seem to hold that against me. I’ve been told that my beliefs or opinions about family, parents, church, and all kinds of things probably are just the result of pain and bitterness and therefore couldn’t possibly be valid. I don’t get that reaction. I think it’s condescending, not to mention rude and lazy and sometimes self-protective. Quite frankly, I’d rather deal with outright hostility than deal with somebody who believes that I’m so crippled by my past that I’ll never be able to “walk. “

I do understand that sometimes when people have been badly wounded, they aren’t necessarily reasonable or rational. I know that it’s easy to become set upon what a person knows, those lousy experiences, and to refuse to grow. I know bitterness is a sweetly fired, spreading poison that gnaws the bones. But just because somebody is unreasonable or irrational and not necessarily objective, does that make them wrong? Does that invalidate their opinion? Does it make their information worthless? Should we merely humor and otherwise dismiss them? If “the burned hand teaches best,” why on earth would the burn victim’s experience be counted as less than the person who hasn’t faced the flames?

I am not saying that experience can’t be a problem. It can be. It sure can be. All the wrong lessons that keep a person bound and crippled and festering are frequently learned from painful experiences. I just don’t think it’s fair or right or very smart to uncritically discount what those have faced flames have learned. If nothing else, even if they’re all wrong, simply listening without dismissal can tell them that they matter.

Thanks for listening!

The Way I Am

Trying to get a post written has been a little bit frustrating in the last week and a half. I don’t know what my problem is. I’ve made multiple attempts and been universally dissatisfied with them! Ah, well – that’s how goes sometimes. Since it is, and since I’m running out of time this week (yes, I know it’s only Thursday, but I have these things called plans tomorrow and Saturday), here goes yet another attempt. This one is going up, I just know it. In fact, this one might be a little bit different than what I’ve put up here so far, because I think I’m going to write about something that gets under my skin. I’m going to rant a little, mildly, I hope.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently, for no particular reason, is how irritating and frustrating I find statements like, “That’s just the way I am.” Generally, it bugs me when people say that to other people. I don’t like it when somebody tells me that. I don’t like it when somebody tells another person that. What I hear is not only “That’s just the way I am.” I’m also hearing, “Deal with it, because I’m not changing.” My reaction to that idea is something like an loud internal buzzer that you might hear on a game show after somebody gave the wrong answer. BBZZZZZZZZTTT!! “Nope,” I think. “Bad plan, man. Welcome to the museum, ‘cuz that’s where dinosaurs and OTHER FOSSILS (fossil – once living matter now turned to stone) hang out.” I really do not like being told, “That’s just the way I am.”

Why would that be, I wonder? I suspect much of it has to do with my own need to change, to become a new person, a new creation. Some of that is due to my Christianity. We’re supposed to be new creations, full of new life, to be overcomers, to be growing and fruitful and pretty much leaving all that old crap that tied us down behind. Throw that sin off, right? It entangles us so easily. Besides the religious motivation, I’ve had to deal with the baggage of being abused as a child. One of the more pernicious and personally horrifying aspects of that wasn’t how much I was hurt, but how much I hurt others because I was hurt, broken, and ignorant. Abuse doesn’t cause a person problems simply because they were hurt and mistreated, as awful as that is. It also causes people problems because it replaces good things (experiences, lessons, relationships, etc.) with bad things, and dealing with the consequences of all those misshapen opportunities is painful and difficult. Unchecked, those consequences can rule a person for the rest of their lives, long after the abuser has gone. I had to change, to learn new things, to become somebody new, and one thing I learned along the way is that abuse isn’t Life’s only bad teacher. There are plenty of others out there, too. Nobody is perfect, and everybody has room to improve. Perhaps it’s understandable why I’m horrified by somebody who refuses change or even to evaluate themselves for the possibility that they may need to change.

But that’s not the total of my objection, I’m afraid. As I mentioned earlier, I also hear “deal with it” sometimes in a “that’s the way I am” statement. Ever had a conflict with somebody end when they trotted out that statement? I have. It’s an unpleasant experience. Sometimes, honestly, whatever it is is not a negotiable thing for them. It’s the way they see it, it’s how they are, and at times like that, it’s best to (and I’m generally okay with) agree to disagree. As long as folks can be civil about it and understand that a new boundary has been erected in the relationship, it’s all good. However, sometimes it’s not like that at all. Sometimes, it’s an excuse or a demand or an ultimatum. Somebody thinks they can do whatever the heck they want, and you can just suck it up and deal with it, or else. Lame, lame, lame.

And I’ve yet another objection. Once in a while, somebody says that because they’re really stuck, and even though they want something different, they believe that they cannot change. What a heartbreaker that is. It’s a lie, a great, huge, ogre-ish lie. If God can create this whole world out of the void, He can change you. If He can take a single man and turn him into a people that flourishes today, He can change you. If He can raise dead folks and make ’em living, I’m pretty sure He can help you. The lame walk. The blind see. Lepers are healed.

Come, friend, and be changed.