Humility is universally applicable

Yesterday I had the privilege of moderating a plenary panel discussion at the Thames Valley Family Health Team’s annual spring conference. The purpose of the panel was to share stories about patient experience. Four storytellers recounted personal moments when the healthcare system blossomed beautifully or failed miserably in response to an individual struggling with mental illness, addiction, depression, or post-traumatic stress.

I left the session with two salient points at front of mind. This post is a brief reflection on the first takeaway.

Listening to the panelist’s stories, it occurred to me that the concept of cultural humility has relevance beyond the domain and context of intercultural interactions. (Brief review: cultural humility is the idea that approaching an individual from another culture in a spirit of humble curiosity paves the way for a constructive therapeutic or clinical relationship. Now, juxtapose this approach of gentle inquiry with walking into the room thinking that you are aware of another person’s needs, beliefs, worldview, and convictions because you graduated from the ‘cultural competency’ course over the weekend.)

Conscientious, intentional, self-doubting humility is not only crucial in intercultural exchanges: the ethos transposes seamlessly when listening to individuals struggling with addiction or other psychological complexities. Assuming to know ‘the answer’ to another’s situation because you have a clinical category for their condition is something like ‘psychologicalism’ — similar to the way that a racist assumes to know particular facts about another person based on specific physical characteristics or ethnic appearances.

It is interesting to think about the ways that ‘cultural humility’ might be taken up as ‘clinical humility’ or in a broader sense. But creating more jargon is not the point: figuring out how we can inspire one another towards greater humility — and the curious, individual-centric inquisitiveness it fosters — is the bottom line.

It boils down to a question: as a healthcare system, how do we treat individual people as individual persons? The second takeaway from yesterday’s session follows from this question. It’s a reflection about the bottlenecks and potentials of bureaucracies. Will post shortly.

Taking Health for Granted

[This is part three of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: Health — while prob­a­bly the easiest thing to take for granted — is the most frag­ile gift I will ever have. It is the ful­crum upon which every­thing else balances–I will respect and nur­ture it as such. To seek health is to seek life. They are synonymous.

Several years on, I want to think I have a somewhat more nuanced idea of health than I did when I wrote the above paragraph. In the intervening years, I’ve wrestled more with the adaptive nature of well-being and the psychological, social, and experiential episodes that frame how we define ‘health’ in a physical sense. Today, I find myself increasingly curious about ‘health’ as a political and corporate narrative, too.

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to define health as the absence of disease and disease as the absence of health. I am now less inclined to describe health in such choice-oriented, individualistic terms than I did in my thirties. Health is a much more complicated concept now. It is something that somehow involves us, not just me alone.

While I would revise the wording and some aspects of my original statement, I am nonetheless acutely aware that health is, for all its complexities, precious. On the morning I feel better after a bout of fever or flu, the first thought I have is: Why don’t I intentionally celebrate health every morning I wake up without feeling sick with every ounce of fanfare I can muster? Health is remarkably easy to take for granted, but maybe some of the ideas we have about health continue to mature with age.

Blogger Pronouns: thoughts on simplicity, exclusivity, openness, and privacy

Hi Eli, Colin, Serena, Josh. Thanks so much for your thoughts on the Blogging in the Second Person post.

Eli, your response makes me think of Dear Dealer, a recent segment on This American Life. It is an essay addressed in the second person. For this essay, at least, the POV frames the story in such a way that personalizes the issue far beyond a third person report on the subject. Tying the idea of simplicity to POV here is interesting. By no means do I think we should say something prescriptive, such as a blog reply ought to be in the second person. But perhaps what we can say is that the second person might help simplify some responses in ways that give them much greater clarity and meaning?

Colin, I agree that the “reluctance to exclude some readers” is probably a key reason why we bloggers sound like editorialists. This thought provokes the question further for me: I’m curious to what extent does it feel alienating to read a text that is written as correspondence? Is this principally a concern with perceived contextlessness? I am imagining someone reading these words who did not read the initial text that sparked this conversation: does this reader presently now feel more left out or uninvited to participate than had I written this in the third person? (It’s an honest question: I’m not sure.)

Serena, I have also contemplated the concern that blogging as correspondence might “restrict the conversation between the original poster and the responder.” On the one hand, I agree it’s a very fair and valid concern. And, simultaneously, I wonder if there anyone reading this post who feels excluded from this conversation, or unable to participate in it? If we grant the hypothesis that public writing is about engagement, does not a text’s inherent publicness itself invite input? Perhaps this exchange is akin to leaving messages to your pen pal on a public bulletin board, or adding to the ‘thread’ of a graffiti exchange? Could we also suppose that open dialogue is in another way more inclusive and invitational of external input than it is exclusive?

Josh, I love your question, “would some individuals be uncomfortable having a ‘letter’ written to them made public without prior permission?” I’m fascinated by the psychology and cultural underpinnings here, and the proposition that a shift in pronouns might be felt to necessitate acquiring the permission of the intended recipient — who is the same person regardless of the POV of the text. I wholeheartedly agree that the grand traditions of ‘open letters’ and ‘letters to the editor’ in print media have earned reputations for public shaming and one-sided takedowns. But how much of this expectation is contextual, genre-based behaviour? As Serena says, “I’d have no qualms about responding to you in the 2nd person if I was replying to you in the comments section.” Do we not write very open, public messages to one another all the time already? I wonder: by nature of maintaining a presence on a platform — one which bakes comments or responding into its infrastructure — do we not implicitly agree that others will write both to and about us? What does this mean in the blogging context? By nature of a person presenting their ideas publicly to the whole world, do they not inherently invite the world to respond however it so will?

I appreciate the input and perspective that all four of you bring to this question. The more I think about, the more the blogosphere sounds like a parliament: instead of addressing our interlocutor, we address the Speaker of the House, who happens to be the impersonal whole of the internet. This observation isn’t intended to outline a ‘problem’ that demands a prescriptive ‘solution.’ But I am thankful for the opportunity to engage in this discussion with you.

Why Press the ‘Publish’ Button?

In thinking about ways that the internet is changing writing, Colin Walker asks: what exactly happens in a person’s mind when they push the ‘publish now’ button? Why make one’s words public?

Writing privately, as a way of life, might be a means of self-development. Maintaining a personal archive of thoughts for future reference is a way to grow and hone my understanding. But why am I posting this text publicly, for all the world to see?

(Hold on: this is about to get real meta. Only continue if you are ready to ingest yet another blog post in the overly saturated genre of writing about blog posts!)

The reason I made this text public, so far as I can reckon, has something to do with you, the reader. These words are here — and not in a private journal or encrypted file — because I want to share them with you. If this were text intended for my purposes alone, it wouldn’t be here. And there are untold rough drafts and iterations of these paragraphs that I am inclined to keep private.

I think we must acknowledge the performative, ‘recipient-oriented’ dynamic of any public action. As Maria Luisa commented earlier: a dancer who says, ‘I don’t care what the audience thinks of my performance’ seems to be making an incoherent statement. Why perform in front of an audience at all if audiences are nothing more than fake brain ornaments, propped up in rows of chairs like mannequins? If the thoughts of audiences are categorically void of all meaning, why bother climbing on to a stage at all?

To me, this is why the grand declaration of selfie culture — “This is my identity, and I don’t care what you think of me!” — boils down to a non sequitur. “I don’t care what you think of me” dissolves into a self-contradictory statement. As humans who have opinions, it seems nonsensical to act under the pretence that the opinions others do not matter.

I made this text public because I want your attention. Like a performer preparing for opening night, I have spent time in private orchestrating these words into a (hopefully) coherent structure. And, like a photographer who has toiled with light, I now present my creation to you. The culminating question of our inquiry is, therefore: now that I have your attention, what do I want you to think or do? This question might not only be applied to this blog post, but to every public presentation. Why post a picture of my dinner? Why share a status update that places me at a specific event or with particular people? What am I hoping that you will think or do as a result of me posting a picture of the skyline on my way to work?

How do we separate the performer from the performance? What is the dance without the dancer? What are words without the writer? How are thoughts distinct from the thinker? What is beauty without a beholder? We do not share our photos, dances, and blog posts as disembodied, discreet objects: we share them to share ourselves. We press ‘publish’ to inform the way others think, and I purpose this act is indistinguishable from seeking to inform the way others feel about us as individuals. It does not make sense to separate the act of publishing from the desire to engage other people. (There is a much longer discussion to be had here about individualism, the renaissance, and whether the reliefs Pharaohs and self-commissioned oil paintings of nobility count as ‘selfies,’ but I digress.)

A creator might envision limited directionality (I post, you ‘like’) or a multidirectional interaction (here’s my book to contribute to the discussion in a particular field, and thus an invitation for others to debate or refute my ideas), but in either case the project sets out to intersect the attention of others. ‘Publish now’ presumes that human brains could or should connect or influence one another in some way.

In follow up to my earlier Writing versus Posting? article, David Ashworth speculates that “posting is about me and the space I live in” and therefore amounts to a diary that one intends to be read by others. A monologue for an audience, as it were. (I like the theatrical description of a soliloquy here.) On the other hand, “writing [in contrast to ‘posting’] is about us and the space between us.” Writing sets the stage and invites dialogue, which is distinctive from broadcasting the personal details of one’s life for an audience that may or may not be listening. One activity tends toward fishing for validation, and the other tends toward courting variant perspectives. (Corporate social media has excelled in incentivizing the former largely at the expense of the latter.)

At the bottom line, my motivation for publishing this blog post and another person’s reason for sharing a selfie with their breakfast cereal is the same: we are both looking for engagement. It is the same reason dancers perform, and painters exhibit their work. The kernel of difference between our publications and presentations rests in the kind of interaction we hope to galvanize or inspire in others. The distinctive ways we frame these ‘terms of engagement’ in our public activities reflects something about how we define value versus minutiae.

So, what do you think? Does pressing ‘publish now’ boil down to a desire to engage with others?

I am not convinced

I am not convinced that ‘online communities’ will be defined as ‘communities’ indefinitely: it is quite possible some future generation might rebel against pixel-based approximations of human interaction as the sham of their parent’s age.