A Way to Understanding

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While most Sunday's of the month are dedicated to the Faith v Religion series, I'm really excited to feature on the last Sunday's of the month this special podcast interview called Help Me Understand.

From the intro to this website, here is the short summary of the purpose and format for the Help Me Understand podcast series...

Ever meet (in person or virtually) someone who is just fascinating to you?  I'm like you, especially when those people come from a radically different background than mine which I would describe as American, white, male, suburban, middle-class, conservative Christian.  Help Me Understand is like my own home-grown version of Humans of New York or StoryCorps.  First, I find someone who fascinates me.  It might be someone I have a personal history with but it could be someone you suggest via the Suggestion Box!  Then I record a podcast interview with them, seeking to understand what "makes them tick" by asking a series of questions that surfaces their meta-narrative."

So before you listen to your first Help Me Understand interview, I felt it would be good to lay some conceptual groundwork here in a separate blog/podcast.  In other words, it will be helpful for you to understand how I understand the word "understand" and how exactly I hope to achieve greater understanding through the Help Me Understand podcasts.  Confused?  Hopefully you won't be in five minutes.

First, let's clearly distinguish between understanding and agreement.  My goal here, personally and for those who listen to these podcasts, is not agreement on beliefs, values and lifestyles.  With that said, mutual understanding does surface a commonality we might have assumed was not there.  This is the essence of empathy.  Sometimes this leads to greater agreement in terms of shared beliefs, values and lifestyle choices.  But if that appears to be the goal from the beginning, understanding will, in my opinion, be hard to find.  Us humans seem to be open to change so long as we feel that the people we are engaging with are not trying to change us.  So I will try my best to ask the kinds of questions that let the one being interviewed simply tell their story without feeling like they have to convince me somehow of the legitimacy of their perspective.  I will absolutely NEVER express my thoughts on their experiences and perspectives in these podcasts.  "I think" statements or rhetorical questions where the answer fits what I want to hear are banned from these interviews!

So what specifically will be my approach?

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I have a theory that in the end most people understand their lives and make decisions on what to do and say based on a story.  There is something about a narrative that so profoundly resonates with human experience that we default to it as a guiding force over that of a defined system of belief, philosophy, or creed.  A story is the context by which we interpret our lives.  So the questions I ask are intended to help us slowly construct the personal narrative of those being interviewed--that is, the people or other living creatures in their life (characters), the places and times within which they have lived (setting) and what they have done and experienced (plot).  Each interview might approach these subjects in a different order, but here are the questions we will explore.  (I will likely ask some follow up questions to flesh out some details.)

  1. What are the names of some people who have played a big role (both 'good', 'bad' or both) in your life?  Try to share 1-2 names for each of the categories: a) family, b) friends, c) fellow students, d) colleagues at work, e) neighbors, f) strangers (can include people you have not personally met but who you feel had a significant impact on your life).  Any other non-human creatures (e.g. pets) that have played a significant role in your life?  If so, what were their names? 
  2. Can you share with us the names of two to three significant places where you have lived or traveled to?  When did you go to those places?  Can you describe what it was like (what it looked like and how it felt to be there)?  Outside of your own personal experience, how would you broadly describe what life was like in those places at the time you were there?  What would most people living in that place at that time remember (important events, popular leaders, overall mood, etc.)?
  3. Can you describe for us a time in your life when things were going really well?  What was (were) the reason(s) that this time was so good?
  4. When did that begin to change ('go down hill')?  What happened?  In your opinion, who was to blame and why?
  5. Did it get worse?  If so, when and how did it get worse?
  6. Has it gotten better?   If so, when and how did it get better or when and how did you finally overcome the challenge(s) of that time?  What was this moment like?
  7. In summary, what would you say is the nature of the main obstacles you have faced in life (so far)?
  8. What would you say is "the moral of your story" (so far)?  How do you think the story will end?

What we've done in listening to the answers to these questions is just told a story that identities...

  • key characters: both in terms of their roles (protagonists and antagonists) and degree of complexity (flat or round)
  • setting: representing the physical places and broad chronological context
  • plot: to include exposition, introduction of the conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution as well as the perceived nature of the story (comedy or tragedy)

In closing, why is it important for us to ask these question and listen to someone's answers?  We live in times when understanding is desperately needed but short in supply.  I believe that as we listen to these stories we will come to recognize themes that are common to all of us and that in those discoveries is where understanding begins