Is there something we’re avoiding talking about?

As you part from a significant person in your life a common practice has become to say “I love you.” The phrase affirms your connection and insures against regret if the person were to be struck down by a bus, a heart attack or… —let’s not dwell on the possibilities.
Something different may be as important to say before you part: “Is there something we’re avoiding talking about?” Let me explain the two currents in thinking behind the suggestion.

1. In Brené Brown’s popular accounts she distinguishes guilt = “I did something bad” from shame = “I’m a bad person.” Brown connects vulnerability and shame. If I am a bad person, I won’t show vulnerability, that is, I won’t take emotional risks, allow emotional exposure, live with emotional uncertainty. As a bad person, I cannot be sure that I will get picked up and dusted off by someone if I showed such vulnerability. To get out of the stuck place of shame, Brown advises, we need to have the courage to counter the idea that we’re a bad person and show vulnerability—provided there is at least one person we can rely on to pick us up and dust us off.

I would couch shame slightly differently. I think that the shame that keeps us stuck and anxious derives from not having asked for help and instead we continued what wasn’t good for us or was not worthy in the larger scheme of things. To start asking for help now is to admit that we didn’t ask for help in various situations in the past; buried feelings from those times are sure to well to the surface. It is easier to retreat and protect oneself from those feelings.

To ask “Is there something we’re avoiding talking about?” is to increase the chance that we ask for help in the first place or, later on, that we acknowledge that there are buried feelings. Perhaps we don’t process and defuse those feelings right there and then, but we place it on the agenda for doing so before too long.

2. When teachers or authors such as myself suggest that there are alternative ways of looking at something, or that there are things that students/readers hadn’t looked at before, they imply that the students/readers need to take up the work of adopting and adapting the view to their own circumstances. Suppose that the students/readers need help in doing that. They might wonder if the teachers/authors are committed to staying with them; perhaps the teachers/authors lack interest or ability to do that and are hiding behind a smokescreen of the intellectual virtue of puzzling things out till they fit together and of being curious and asking questions. For the students/readers to ask them “Is there something we’re avoiding talking about?” is to probe that commitment (or lack thereof) and invite the teachers/authors to address what, including shame (see #1) might be getting in the way.

Another way of raising this issue is to consider one’s loyalties. In Raymond Williams’s novels (including one called Loyalties), he explores the tension between solidarities forged through working and living together in particular places—”militant particularism”—and what I call trans-local perspectives—perspectives that come from movement away from and across local places. (See this extract from the epilogue of my 2005 book, Unruly Complexity, for elaboration on this tension.)

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

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