I’ve become a blogger initially to provide a platform for my Caterpillar Café project, but it has broadened its scope to achieve the same aim: to gather different people and ideas, and get them to know each other, grow together, and make our worlds richer and more meaningful through our interactions. What the Caterpillar Café offered to me and many other women in post-war Tripoli, is what I wish to replicate here, on a wider scale: a safe place to be the best one can be.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m a cat with many hats, and this affords me the luxury of having experienced a wide range of situations, from a variety of perspectives. What this has done to my Weltanschauung, is broaden it to the point of uncanny flexibility, but it has also taught me that despite the devastating consequences of prejudice and ignorance, the solution to most problems is quite simple: knowledge.
I’m not talking about the knowledge you get from studies and books, which can sometimes be deceptive, as it gives you a false reassurance that you “know what you’re doing.” I’m talking about the willingness of each individual to spend time truly listening to each other. This isn’t too far removed from the principle of charity in philosophy, but let’s stick to one line of thought for now.
Being willing to set aside one’s own “expertise” and engaging with genuine interest in a collaborative fashion with someone, is truly freeing, and enlightening. It permits you to let go of your need to “rescue” anyone you see doing things differently, and it allows you to let go of the burden of having to impose your solution through authority. This isn’t to say authority has no place, just level with me. I see this as a mother trying to teach my kids how to take care of themselves. I’ve seen this as an educator with students trying to make sense of new material. I’ve seen it as a white looking European playing and interacting with refugees, immigrants, and people who looked or sounded less “European” than I did. I’ve experienced it as someone who looks like a foreigner in her own country. I’ve even experienced it as an academic who put forth an unusual approach to the study of Renaissance literature, as well as in classes where my faith was picked apart and dissected with no consideration for the spiritual benefits it brings to its adherents. And I’ve applied it successfully in each and every one of these instances.
This skill, which I’ve taught to students, teachers, and volunteers, and I’m now sharing with you, is called providing “cultural safety.” You may have heard the term before, as it’s nearly two decades old. It was coined by a Maori nurse, when she described the need for it among health professionals (predominantly Caucasian) who work with Aboriginal patients. This is how she describes it:
“Where there is no assault, challenge or denial of [one’s] identity, of who [we] are and what [we] need. It’s about shared respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and experience, of learning together with dignity and truly listening” (Williams, 1999).
I just came across this quote a few years back, and it basically summarizes everything I’ve been trying to do all my life with everyone around me. I am willing to listen, and give of my time and patience, but I expect the same in return. I am not willing to accept a priori judgements, without reminding myself that generalizations are never universally applicable.
Just think about it: have you ever been to the doctor complaining about an ailment, only to be misdiagnosed or simply discharged with a prescription for over the counter painkillers? I’m not saying that sometimes that isn’t the solution, but all too often, it really isn’t. My father complained to his doctor for over a year about back pain, before he was finally sent in for x-rays, only to find out he had extensive cancer that was pressing against his spine. My second cousin (who was more like an uncle to me) was sent home when he walked into the emergency room complaining of malaise and severe dizziness. Doctors and nurses thought he was drunk just by looking at him, he hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in decades. If they had bothered to listen, or even just smell his breath, they would have known he was having a stroke, and perhaps he’d still be with us. I’ve just read about countless African American women, who get substandard pregnancy care, simply because their needs are dismissed. Of course this has implications for the unborn baby, and among other, uncountable instances of prejudice and injustice, African American women predominantly, though not exclusively, suffer from what already in the 80’s was coined “weathering” (premature aging due to stress).
On a more global scale, we are constantly being fed images of areas of the world that “apparently can’t get anything right,” and “only know fighting and violence,” so “we need to go and rescue the poor civilians” all the while resolutions for cease-fires are vetoed, democratically elected leaders go unrecognized and are effectively de-commissioned, pleas for specific and limited aid are ignored, agreements to sit and discuss peaceful solutions are hijacked… and wars rage on, civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire, and the media has a feast at their expense.
When will we learn to listen?
Collaboration, kinship, reciprocity, mutual trust and respect, these are all essential ingredients for a viable future, for our children, for our neighbors, for our nations, for our environment (yes, the environment has rights and should have a voice too: we are as dependent on it as it is dependent on our willingness to respect it).
Cultural safety provides us with the certainty and confidence that “those people” are actually capable of knowing what they need, and will tell you so if given the opportunity. True help isn’t interference, pushing one’s own agenda, or giving what one side may think “they need.” It’s about listening to what people need, trying to see things from their perspective, and working together toward a mutually agreed upon solution that works for everyone.
It’s possible that they will overcome their circumstances with our help and eventually return the favor in kind. But the primary aim is to provide a safe environment for the issues to be discussed openly and respectfully. The fact that we’ve given our full attention and respect, offered all the help we could offer, without arrogance or pretention, should give us all pause to consider that this gesture alone, if done by all, could possibly change the world for the better.