“Can I talk to you one on one?” she asked.
I don’t remember her name, but I do remember what we talked about.
“Why do you always ignore me?” she asked. “I’ve noticed that when we’re in group supervision you tend to zone me out. Why is that?”
I was clueless.
“Can we talk about your family history?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
Upon graduation from Calvin Theological Seminary I did a Clinical Pastoral Education session at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Center in Grand Rapids, Mich. One supervisory team member was this Catholic sister.
She suggested my relationship with the only grandmother I knew was likely the reason I now ignored the sister.
“Describe how you got along with your grandmother,” she said.
I visited her often with my father in my pre-teen years. I’m sure she loved me. But Oma never really spoke to me or paid attention to me the way I’ve seen many grandmothers speak to their grandchildren. I was seen but not heard.
Oma was, of course, a woman and much older than me.
The sister was an older woman too. Through this particular discussion, I came to learn much about myself and why I tended to ignore older women.
In conversation with a sibling about our grandmother’s early history, I came to a deeper understanding of the dynamics in my family relationships. I also learned that we are socialized in ways that ideas and attitudes can seep into our lives at a young age—ideas and attitudes that need to be examined as we become older.
My grandmother was orphaned at 5 years old and placed in an orphanage, where I assume she learned to be seen and not heard. The way she behaved toward me came naturally to her. So in her presence, I learned to be seen and not heard. I also learned to not “hear” her or any older woman.
I’m sharing this story to shed some light on how we can be socialized in ways that attitudes and behaviors become part of who we are without our realizing their effect on others. I didn’t realize how I was treating the sister or see the hurt it caused her until she enlightened me. Ignoring the sister resulted in my missing the wisdom she was sharing with the group.
I can’t change the fact that at a very young age I learned this behavior of ignoring older women, but I am responsible for how I behave today.
The author Wendell Berry, in his book The Hidden Wound, writes about picking up racist attitudes around the kitchen table with his family. We can learn racism simply by living with people who have racist attitudes.
Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste, describes how an “immune system against empathy” was built up in children who were taken to the carnivals and county fairs in the early 20th century: “There at these events was an attraction called the ‘Coon Dip,’ in which fairgoers hurled projectiles at live African Americans. There was also the ‘Bean-em,’ in which children flung bean bags at grotesquely caricatured black faces, whose image alone taught the lesson of caste without a word needed to be spoken” (p. 149).
Many of us need a sister to sit with us.
Maybe that sister comes to us in the face of Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount could help us examine ourselves, turn from our dehumanizing ways, and begin to treat all persons with the dignity, respect, and attention they deserve as image bearers of their Creator.