Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Cross-cultural hugs: Hugs of Pity, Hugs of Comfort

I’m not a big hugger.  Hugs have meanings from my past I struggle to understand sometimes.  Last week it came back to the fore for me again.

Because last week was my stepfather’s funeral.  It was a hard day, and the days since have remained hard for me.  I am talking to very few people other than saying hello or general pleasantries—I seem able to communicate well with my students and clients, but hardly at all with others.  Perhaps the most I have really spoken since he died other than in doing my job was at his funeral, where I forgot to say all he might have wanted me to say—perhaps highlighting his civil rights career in the late 60’s and 70’s, where he did things like organize protests while working as a civil rights worker for the City of Evanston along with a locally well-known reverend in the black community so people would feel their voices were heard after Martin Luther King was shot; maybe talking about his hopes to create a foundation to train lawyers to help poor people and minorities fight injustice; maybe noting the love he had for his children and how happy he had made my mother by building a life with her; and maybe even how he helped me build my last place soapbox derby car as a cub scout.  I couldn’t say any of that—I somehow did not think about how it might be my place to speak at his funeral before it just happened.  I mostly talked about being lucky to share part of my life with him and his family and how I’d miss him.

A day before he lost consciousness for the last time during his final ambulance ride to the hospital where he died, I had been teaching my students about connections in the context of cultural competence and interviewing.  I gave them my goals for their learning prior to the class:  the biggest thing I wanted them to learn was that to be culturally competent, you need to know yourself and that all people are not just like you.  You come from a culture and from a past that has shaped you, and if you do not understand that, you cannot understand why you see the world the way you do.  Your clients come from a culture and an individual past that has shaped them, too.  It may be similar or quite different from your culture and past.  You do not have the ability to understand all that goes into who they are and how they see the world but must listen to people and hear what you can.  You might have helpful stereotypes of your clients from working with and being part of their communities that might help you understand your clients.  However, you can’t be bound by those stereotypes, but must see individuals as such, and be ready to see how those stereotypes do and do not describe your clients.   Your clients may have different views of the same facts you see that are shaped from their experiences, and in their work with you, they may have different goals than you might expect and may tolerate different legal and life strategies than you might think they would, perhaps due to these things.  We are the same and we are different.  We need to recognize both.  We cannot let our vision of reality and our vision for our clients’ lives dominate and diminish our clients’ own but must learn to see our clients and their needs and try to meet them.   

And then he died.  And I thought about how I and my family and friends might gain comfort.  And I did not want to think about my culture and what in my past might make me different—there was not really time.  I should have.  I was about 3 when my biological father died, a death I am too young to remember.  However, I remember clearly the years long reactions to his death that partly have shaped me.  It made it difficult to comfort me then and today. The relatives who came up to me for years after he died and wanted to hug me because I had lost my father.  The teachers and friends’ parents who did the same at a time when two parent families were more the norm and having no father was strange and pitiable.  They made me feel outcast.  They made me feel damaged.   Their hugs were meant to comfort me, but instead felt like pity and sorrow and misfortune.

So I thought about what I had been teaching my students.  Do I know myself?  Do I even know my friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues well enough to understand their realities and how they might find comfort and deliver it?  Is it like I do?  My students often leave our discussion about connection with clients feeling like it will take them a full 10 minutes to understand their clients enough to help them, a position from which I try to dissuade them.  After years with my family and years at the same job and within the same community, did I even understand the culture and lives of others around me well enough to comfort people and be comforted?

I think my answer is probably not.  My mother needed comforting, and I knew I had to and wanted to provide that.  I sat with my mother at the funeral and hugged her and held her hand during the service.  The funeral was a confusing event for her due to her age and dementia, and I did my best to comfort her within my capacities—I listened, and mostly she just wanted to get away from the event and share her fears about how she can live without my stepfather, doing so in the repetitive but real way she could express that due to her dementia. 

I talked to and hugged his children and grandchildren and tried to hear what they had to say about losing their father and grandfather.  To some extent, they are from a different world than I.  Their ancestors were buried at that site, including one of his kids, who was a stepsister to me but a sister, mother, and grandmother to several there.  They were trying to process things, and they needed me to respect their feelings and leave them be.

But when it came to comforting me, I realized what people saw.  I do not seem like a person able to be comforted.   I still think of distant attempts at comforting me that I couldn’t appreciate.  I likely radiate that today.  Here I was years later, and I was becoming insulted by the friends and colleagues that sent perfunctory emails and did not check in again, while at the same time rebuffing some others that wanted to talk with and comfort me.  Maybe the people who did not try to comfort me know me best.  Maybe they know that a hug or a kind word has to come with an explanation of why it is not expressing pity but love or I cannot handle it.  Or maybe they have their own culture or experience that triggers things in them so they react in a way unrelated to what I am experiencing.

So I am coming to understand me—my culture, the things about my life that make me different from many in my culture, and the way that I see the world and connections.  I thought I would have accomplished this by now in my somewhat older age but I clearly have not.  And maybe that will help me with my clients, my students, my family, my friends, and perhaps it will even help me with me.  But to my students who learn about connection and understanding oneself and think it is a short-term process, it is not—at least for me.  And if I give you a hug some time, remember I will have thought about it and will not do so from pity but only from love and connection


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One of the most powerful things I have ever read, Spencer. Love to you. We are the same in some ways you cannot imagine, and for that I thank you for articulating your experience.

Posted by: Jill Engle | Apr 13, 2022 6:50:38 AM

We don't k now each other but I needed to read this today. Thank you~

Posted by: Genevieve Mann | Apr 13, 2022 4:59:37 PM

Thanks to you both.

Posted by: Spencer Rand | Apr 13, 2022 6:28:45 PM

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