Experience and Expression
Spending 8 years in juvies and jails certainly changed my perspective on what it feels like to have all your values violated.
Fortunately, I was serving time as a counselor for incarcerated inmates in county jails and juvenile delinquency “homes” — not as a convicted felon in a federal prison. It was an eye-opening experience for me to work with people who were unfortunate enough not only to have had terrible experiences, but also to have expressed themselves in anti-social ways.
I will always remember how confused and angry most correctional officers became when they would hear me demonstrating understanding to the experience of a distressed delinquent or an incensed inmate.
“You feel furious because you are trapped in a cage with people you never saw before.”
“You feel sad because it’s lonely in here without your family and friends.”
I could see the tension drain from the inmates, and rage fill the guards from head to toe.
“Are you on their side?!” they would sneer. “Why are you agreeing with them?” The guards, I understood, had their own experiences that caused them to express themselves as they did. Most of the guards came from under-privileged backgrounds, but had managed to stay out of jail. They had also experienced a long history of unpleasant encounters with the people on the other side of the bars. Note: “other” and bars. Their clichéd solution to rehabilitation was either “lock ’em up and throw away the keys,” or “line ’em up and shoot ‘em.”
For me, those exchanges helped me to summarize succinctly my learning about empathizing with another’s experience:
- A good response defuses tension.
- Understanding does not mean agreeing.
- Every experience deserves empathy; certain expressions do not.
Most people don’t have the luxury of choosing their experience.
Kids don’t choose their parents, the countries in which they were born, the economic conditions in which they are raised, the dominant religions in their communities, the people who impact their life for better or for worse, or the politics of their friends and neighbors. Some of us have been fortunate enough to have primarily positive and supportive influences in our lives, while others have not been so lucky. No matter what experience people have as children and adults, I believe they deserve to be understood.
At some point in our lives, however, we need to take responsibility for how we give expression to our experience.
We make the choice to be a detractor, a victim, a contributing member of society or a leader. While I am committed to demonstrating empathy to anyone’s experience, I not only disagree with some expressions of experience, but I also vigorously protest certain words and actions.
In their powerful book, Experience and Expression: Women and the Holocaust, Elizabeth Baer and Myrna Goldenberg describe how gender-based history influenced the way women survivors interpreted and expressed their experience in the Nazi prison camps. They formed a sisterhood and gave comfort, as best they could, to each other. The authors reinforce the idea that each of us has a unique story about how we have been treated and how we have responded.
In another major book on this topic, Experience and Expression: Philosophy of Psychology, Joachim Schulte discusses Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings on psychological concepts, notably the interactions among personal history, language, and behavior.
Wittgenstein suggests that there are limits to how well language can accurately and completely express experience. In essence, we create narratives about our experiences and expressions that differ in variety and veracity, in form and function, in elaboration and exaggeration.
Both of these books inform how a person’s experience influences what they believe, how they express themselves, and why they act as they do. Experience, however, cannot serve as an excuse for hateful, hurtful, or destructive behavior.
Most everyone in the world knows what a success story Oprah is and how generous she has been with the fortune and fame she has built over the course of her career. Most people don’t know that Oprah was raped at nine years old, suffered abuse for the next several years, and lost a baby at age 14. She was at the doorsteps of a home for “bad girls” but was turned away because there was no room. Oprah somehow gathered the strength and grit to make choices that led to a brilliant career. I suspect there were a few people in her life who understood her experience and gave her the support she needed to overcome the traumatic nightmares of her childhood, to give expression to the values she came to cherish, and to emerge as one of the strongest women in the world.
There is a lot of talk about the importance of empathy these days in understanding different experiences, but I’m not sure the skill is deeply understood or effectively utilized. Being fully empathic requires us to read widely, to attend closely, to observe astutely, to tune-in sensitively, to listen deeply, and to respond accurately to feelings and values. Feelings come in many forms and intensities, but the general categories are up, down, anger, fear, and confusion.
I have helped elementary kids expand their vocabulary of feeling words to more than 500. Go ahead, see how many you can list.
Values also have a wide range of importance and expression. As human beings, we have physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual values. In working with individuals and organizations, I have identified over 100 possible values to help us guide our lives. The question is how are these stated values defined and expressed. You might want to write down your 10 most important values. But here is the rub:
If a person values acceptance, support, trust, respect, compassion, forgiveness, etc., you would expect them to behave in kind and loving ways to their fellow human beings on this planet. If a person’s behaviors are congruent with those values, I am delighted to recognize, reward, encourage, and praise their efforts. If the values are only words on a wall or regurgitations of religious texts with no connection to behaviors, then I am inclined to point out the gaps between words and actions.
If a person values dominance, power, greed, self-aggrandizement, or winning at any cost, then you would expect them to be manipulative, disingenuous, exploitative, and hateful. If a person’s behaviors are expressions of those values, then I want to do whatever I can to resist their advancement.
My point is that I am willing to empathize with anyone’s experience. I want to understand as fully as I can why people believe what they believe and why they act the way they act. Demonstrating understanding, however, does not mean I agree with how they express their values. It simply helps me get a clearer idea of how the person’s history, motivations, and beliefs affect their behavior and language. I can’t help them create a personalized solution if I don’t understand their experience.
In short, experiences are not always chosen and deserve to be understood. Expressions of experience involve choice and don’t necessarily deserve support.
I have spent most of my life working hard to become more empathic and understanding of different experiences. I am having a harder time these days being tolerant of how various experiences are expressed.
When I worked in jails and juvenile homes almost 50 years ago, I had no trouble responding to inmates’ experiences and helping them find more constructive ways to express themselves. These days I’m wondering if we are really jailing the right people.
It seems to me we are witnessing a great wave of crimes the privileged are committing in their persecution of the poor from political trickery to Wall Street abuse. And they are not only walking free, but consolidating their power as well.
I must admit, my empathy skills go dead for these pompous and powerful few in the highest positions of government and business.
I am still hoping we can learn to be more empathic to all experiences and to express ourselves in more compassionate, honest, and helpful ways. The good news is that you don’t need to go to jail to learn those skills. Even the rich can benefit.
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 Experience and Expression: Women and the Holocaust, edited by Elizabeth R. Baer and Myrna Goldenberg
 Read about Wittgenstein’s writings about behaviorism and language at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
. Experience and Expression: Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Psychology by Joachim Schulte
 “America’s 10 Cushiest Prisons”