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Experience Isn't Everything

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In this video I’m going to be making two points, basically laying out the parameters around a problem It may seem at first that I’m making a bit of a narrow, bizarre point, so I would ask you, please, don’t leave right away if you disagree with my first point

It’ll make sense in the end As a priest in the Catholic Church, I play a part in the family life of a lot of people Whether it be counseling couples to have a better relationship, preparing them for marriage or baptism, teaching faith formation classes on human sexuality, or simply preaching about the domestic church, I have a lot to say on the subject And so does the Church Producing reams of documents and promulgating more than a few social laws, the Catholic Church is rarely silent on these matters

If has to do with family or sexuality, you can be sure that the Church has written something about it Which, for some people, is a bit maddening Who do these men think they are? An all male, celibate priesthood, a hierarchy of leaders that has taken vows not to have sex or get married, telling the rest of the world how to have sex and get married What could these men possibly know about that? It’s an objection that I’ve heard my entire life, and frankly, I’ve never really understood it Even well before I became a priest, I found it odd that my peers—other high school and college students—would throw out this objection, while in the same breath offering their own take on the situation

As if an 18-year-old has so much more expertise in the area of marriage, sexuality, and raising kids than a priest… And for that matter, what makes someone think that simply being married or having kids makes them good at it Many marriages end in divorce and children are neglected all of the time While priests generally don’t marry or have kids, we receive nearly a decade of training in theology, ethics, and counseling, inside and outside of the classroom For those who have been priests for, say, 20 years, they’ve met thousands of families, heard tens of thousands of confessions, worked with children, helped couples through tough patches As strange as it may sound at first, many priests often have far greater expertise in human sexuality, psychology, child development, and just general communication skills than the average person

Having listened, observed, studied, and practiced for many years, they have something to offer that simply being married doesn’t provide Experience isn’t everything It’s just one form of knowledge, and in many cases, it’s fairly limited Unfortunately, there is an insistence among some today to hold experience as the highest, or even only, form of valid knowledge Sometimes it’s not even a matter of quality experience working in a field, but simply a matter of identity

Being a part of particular subset of people—may it be race, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, whatever—makes one a legitimate authority on all problems related to that identity It is a mindset that idolizes what someone is over what someone knows or can do For some, people of color are the only ones with any legitimate incites on racism; women the only ones who know anything about gender inequality; married people with children are the only ones who can say anything about family dynamics Which, obviously, is ridiculous! Simply being a person of color, a woman, parent, an immigrant, a minority of any sort whatever the category may be—does not inherently make you an expert on that thing… any more than someone with substance abuse issues is an expert on treating substance abuse Do we really think that a psychiatrist treating someone with an addiction to cocaine must know, experientially, what it feels like to be addicted to cocaine in order to treat her patient? Of course not! Having studied on a graduate level, trained with professionals, and treated dozens of patients, the doctor would undoubtedly have more expertise in the field of addiction than an addict, despite having no personal experience in the field

Simply having an inherent identity doesn’t make someone an expert on something, just as simply being a white male doesn’t exclude you from an insightful grasp of big situations Experience isn’t everything And yet… just as foolish as it is to elevate experience above all other forms of knowledge, so, too, is it foolish to ignore experience as a valuable source of truth As a straight white male, born in this country and occupying a position of authority in the Church, I could read all the books I want on a particular topic, study the psychology and sociology of a particular people, listen to people’s experiences until my ears fall off—and I would know a lot of stuff Definitely worthy of lending my voice to tough questions

But no matter how much I learn from others, it will never be enough to know it all There’s just no way Reading and studying and listening is great, but there is only so much that an outsider can truly grasp about a situation Think about the most traumatic experience you’ve ever had, that moment that brought you the most grief, that just shook you to the core If you were to have as much time as you needed, do you think that you could make me feel everything that you felt, that I would walk away knowing the experience so well that I had internalized the pain as my own? Absolutely not

There’s just no way There is a limit to our language, a limit to what can be effectively communicated between people There will always be something to personal experience that cannot be taught Unless you go through it yourself, you’ll never fully understand Which means… if my knowledge of a situation is not based on personal experience but rather the shared experiences of others, then I can know a lot about something, I can even have a wider scope of a situation than the person themselves, but there will always be something missing from my knowledge

Experience isn’t everything, but experience provides a form of knowledge that cannot be gained from any other method of investigation—either you’ve seen and felt something first hand, or you haven’t As a priest, I will never truly know the soul-crushing fatigue of having four young kids that take up every waking ounce of energy As a white person, I will never truly know the fear of being pulled over by a cop and wondering if I’m going to be treated fairly As a man, I will never truly know the powerlessness of being sexually harassed by a superior and having to choose between my career and my safety I can conceptualize these things, sure

I can be told about them And I might remember them in discussions on the topic But they will never be the forefront of my experience, and so I will never bring them up with the same conviction at meetings as those who experience them would In reality, I might even forget about them when coming up with legislation, overlook how certain policies might even exacerbate the problem My lack of experience in the area doesn’t negate my ability to lead, with others, in a general sense, to feel sympathy for those around me, but it does leave me a potential blindspot

And if everyone making decisions is like me, with the same blindspots, then the real needs of people are going to be left out True suffering is going to be overlooked For me, this is where I find a lot of truth in the idea that it is imperative—not optional, not “it would be really nice in an ideal world, imperative—that all forms of leadership have a diversity of experience I don’t care what the issue is, having a group of people who all look and sound alike making the decision is never going to yield the best result It just won’t

Putting someone in a position of leadership solely because they fit a demographic criteria and expecting them to be an expert is ridiculous… But so is the idea that there aren’t highly qualified women or people of color capable of leading, people who have personal experience in a field, but also have the technical knowledge and leadership skills to effectively carry out a job I’m not talking about picking the super under-qualified black woman to take a white man’s job… I’m saying that there are highly qualified black women, and immigrants, and Spanish-speakers, and parents, and so many other people with a wealth of different experiences—who can absolutely do the job as well as anyone, and so should absolutely be a part of leadership So, yeah Even as white person, I have something to contribute to the conversation on race Even as a male, I can be a part of discussions about gender

And yes, even as a celibate, I can certainly help lead in matters of sexuality and family Experience isn’t everything But it is something And so no matter what I read or hear or learn over my years, it is always a reminder to me that what I need most of all when taking on leadership roles… is humility I will never be able to make the best decisions, by myself, on behalf of everyone

Servant leadership means recognizing that we have blindspots, that there are things that we simply cannot know, and so letting ourselves be subject to the leadership of others I don’t care if it’s the government, private businesses, higher education, or even the Church, the more voices you have, the better it will be And really, why wouldn’t we want more experiences? Especially in the Catholic Church, literally the “universal Church,” we know that the faith is embodied and expressed in innumerable ways When the world is filled with thousands of flavors of ice cream, all capturing a slightly different glimpse of God’s beauty and wonder, why would we open a store with nothing but vanilla?

Source: Youtube

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