Thursday, January 26, 2017

Curiosity Above Incredulity

"Why did you do that?" I ask my daughter, through a clenched jaw. One minute ago my son erupted in a sea of tears and I approached my children, as calmly as possible.They'd been playing together quietly until now and so I ask the pair of them, "what happened?" adding a lilt to my voice that I hope sounds direct but nonchalant.

"I got mad, and I bit him," my daughter says.

I examine my two-year-old son, on whose round cheek emerges an equally round circle of bright red teeth marks. It will continue to darken and raise for the next hour, the mark will linger for days. One look at the tooth circle and my eyes dart toward my daughter. Still trying to be calm, I ask, "Why did you do that?" The words ooze out from between my lips, "why did you bite him?"

She looks at me, and at four years old, she can sense the difference between curiosity and incredulity. She knows what she has done is wrong, she knew before she did it. But past that, she also knows that I think it was so wrong that I can't even begin to understand her. She is ashamed, but she's old enough to mask her shame in defense. "I don't know," she nearly sings with a shrug.

"Think about it for a moment," I hiss, because I am trying to help her process her feelings, to gain an understanding of her perspective, to bridge a gap. My words attempt patience and curiosity, but the hissing in my tone suggests that there is nothing she could possibly be feeling that could warrant a bite on her brother's cheek. The sub-text, reads clearly, what is wrong with you? My incredulity builds a wall between us. We are separated, now going through our own personal struggles alone.

Incredulity is not curiosity. Incredulity puts up walls. Curiosity can tear them down. But curiosity, true curiosity, is really hard.

In the days since November 8, or, let me be more honest, ever since our current president first received the Republican nomination, I have been wallowing through life, feeling incredulous.

Incredulity feels good when paired with a shout and a fist in the air. Incredulity feels good when you're surrounded by like-minded people, who are also shouting, chanting, and punching their fists in the air. My months of incredulity have been accompanied by anger, by rage, by sharp impatience. Incredulity doesn't just feel good, we need it, it forces us to sound the battle cry.

But in the moment when two people look each other in the eye and aim to connect, incredulity is a slap in the face. I've been replaying the words from a conversation I had with my father after I'd learned he voted for Donald Trump. My intention was to understand him, to know his key issues, to empathize. I have transcribed the conversation from memory, written it down, typed it on a screen. I have recounted the dialogue over and over again. The transcript is blameless, pristine; there is no malice in my chosen words.

"I'd like to understand why you chose to vote for Donald Trump. Will you tell me why?" I'd asked, calmly, with a deferential tone. So why did the conversation that followed, even after two attempts on two different days, fail? 

In the days and weeks and months that followed, I found myself moping around in incredulous victim-land, how could he? Why does he hate me, why is he so cruel to me? Why did he attack me? Why did he attack my parenting, my choice of faith? Why doesn't he want to connect with me?

This week as I've trudged through daily life during a dreary, albeit unseasonably warm period on the south side of Chicago, I felt overwhelmed by it, my incredulity. I felt it toward my father, toward our new president, toward all the women denouncing the women's march, toward the anonymous commenters on the internet. I felt it toward the aggression my kids display toward one another.

What is wrong with all of you? I want to scream. 

But in the midst of the overwhelming incredulity, I had an epiphany about that conversation with my dad. Despite all my best intentions, my calm tone, and the genuine desire to understand my dad, my questions to him smelled of the incredulity I'd been steeping in for months. My best acting couldn't cover it up. And like my daughter, my father felt a wall go up, but unlike my daughter, he is not just four, and so his experience in 67 years of "being a man" thrust him into a fight with me.

I also realize I know exactly what it's like to be on the other side. It's decades of my parents' incredulity that keeps them from seeing me. My father does not mask his, "I don't understand why you left the faith," he hurls accusingly at me during our conversation. For 20 years I have been telling him why. I have been sharing my entire journey of traveling away and eventually detaching from evangelical Christianity. I've provided no shortage of explanation, but my parents don't understand me. This is not because they don't love me, or don't want to understand me, but because they are not truly curious to hear my answer. They can't imagine, out of their fear, that grew out of their protectiveness, that grew out of their genuine love for me, a possible answer that could warrant my decision.

Curiosity above incredulity. Incredulity disguises itself as a question, but it has no desire for an answer. Curiosity wants to know. Curiosity heals, curiosity sees. 

"Honey, why did you bite your brother?" I'd been so focused on sounding calm, but I hadn't been truly curious. I ask again with true curiosity, and then, as the wall tumbles down, I already know the answer. Because how many faces have I wanted to bite? How many faces have I chewed through in my mind? I know what anger, frustration, and helplessness lead me to envision.

"Why did you bite him, honey?"

"I was just so frustrated, mama. He wouldn't listen to me," and I understand.

My father does not fit the Trump-supporter profile that Trump opponents have created. He's an immigrant and, with a double PhD, he is more educated than all of his children. He's an engineer, someone who used science for a living, who worked for years in Ford Motor Company's science lab to reduce vehicle emissions. He doesn't need more education to understand me. Our incredulity blinds us to one other. No matter how calm my delivery, he'd have sensed the incredulity, because its not just mine here, he'd have sensed the incredulity his media presents, of a swarm of angry people who already believe that there is nothing he could possibly say that would warrant his views.

10 actions, 100 days. After participating in this past weekend's Women's March on Chicago, I am inspired. I'm on board. I'm grateful for the incredulity that brought me here. Let's get to work, write postcards, call our representatives, sign petitions, hold up signs, rally, publish blog posts, make truth-telling art, fight, forward emails, share Facebook posts, hang Black Lives Matter posters in our windows, write our senators, submit op-eds. But all this work will do nothing to help me connect when I'm sitting across the table from my dad once again. It will not help anyone connect with anyone on the other side of the wall. Not without curiosity.

Curiosity above incredulity. Curiosity helped me understand my daughter in a moment of conflict. Incredulity has kept me and my dad from understanding one another for years. 

Curiosity above incredulity. I propose practicing this, starting now. Let's thank incredulity for its vital role, and then practice being curious.

Don't mistake my curiosity for weakness, a white flag, or an apology. I'm ready to get to work. I'm thinking big. My intention is to heal the world, starting by mending our broken relationships. And so with deep curiosity, I'll start by asking, why did my dad vote for Donald Trump? What will you be curious about?