Asking to Understand

In many ways, it was a frustrating year.  I spent much of it writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,  a subject so complex that I was often overwhelmed.  I became intellectually insecure and frustratingly unproductive.  Days of research often produced just one written page.  More than once, I considered quitting the project and taking up something more manageable.But in retrospect, the lessons of the year are not so much about choosing my subject more carefully but about what I learned and how I learned it.  Taking on a topic that was so complicated and potentially polarizing taught me lessons I had never learned from writing about subjects closer to my comfort zone.  And because the subject was not just about facts but also about beliefs, I spent a good amount of time interviewing people who held a variety of opinions.

If there was a theme for my year, it would have to be the year of asking questions.  I asked dozens of questions, not in the way I had ever asked questions before.  I asked to understand points of view I found confusing and disturbing.  I listened to people share stories of pain and anger, sorrow and frustration.  I heard theories and diatribes, proposed solutions and defiant declarations.  It was important to understand each so thoroughly that I could explain them.  So instead of pushing back, I asked to hear more.

People from completely different points of view took the time to talk to me, to explain themselves, to answer my often ignorant questions.  They were mostly kind, extravagantly patient, and willing to share resources.  I rarely offered an opinion or reacted to what I heard.  It wasn’t my place and my lack of expertise was profound.  I needed to take in what was offered without filters.

Some of the people I interviewed wanted me to engage.  It is, after all, a topic that elicits strong reactions from almost anyone. But most just seemed surprised and then grateful that I was truly listening to a view they held dear.  The longer I spent listening, the more I realized that my ignorance was a gift. I wasn’t being disingenuous when I said, “I don’t really know enough to offer an opinion.”  I asked to truly understand, not to argue.

In the end, I came to a place of empathy for a variety of opinions.  Almost every person I interviewed graciously offered to help.  Many spent hours reviewing my drafts and helping me articulate their point of view clearly.  I made new friends who are so diverse I dare not mention one to the other.  And even when I found some of their beliefs disturbing, I came to understand why they held them.  Instead of stereotyping points of view or types of people involved in this conflict, I have new appreciation for the painful realities and conflicting narratives.

This year I learned to ask questions, not to be polite, or to elicit a quote for a story, or to act like I cared.  I asked questions to truly understand.  Not only did I learn a great deal about the subject, I learned even more about people.  We are very much alike, even when we hold very different opinions.  We mostly care about the people we love and about being safe.  We care about justice even though we define it in many ways.  And we want to be respected.  We want someone to listen to our thoughts and try to truly understand who we are.

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