So, we were watching these youth the other day. They were sitting around chatting, arguing, being themselves, when one of the boys said to one of the girls, “Hey Cindi, what’s it like knowing that you’re never gonna be worth a dime?!”
Well, Cindi of course muttered some appropriate curse and then ran off to her room to be alone. We could see the early glisten of tears as she passed us. The worker I was standing with shook her head sadly and wondered out loud, “I wonder what it is like to be her. I mean, everyone is always dumping on her.”
And I thought, “What an important question!”
I wonder what it is like to be her? What must it be like to inhabit the world as she experiences it? What is it like to be her in that world? Can you think of a more important question in our work? Or a better way to position ourselves to appreciate the experience of the young person?
We always say that if we want our interventions to be effective, we need to structure them in a manner that will be meaningful for the young person (as opposed to being meaningful for ourselves). In order to do so, we need to appreciate the context of the person to whom the intervention is directed. And what more important context is there than the context of “being me”. Being me in the world as I experience it.
Now, notice that we were not asking “I wonder what causes her to act like that?” although that, too, is an important question. But that’s a question for another day. For the moment it is sufficient simply to notice the difference between these two connected, but distinctly different questions.
We are often quick to answer the question of why she behaves as she does – usually from the depths of our own projections – but not so quick to wonder what it is like to be her. And in order to be helpful, it might be a question we need to explore. Certainly, if you care about young people and being helpful, there can’t be a more important – or useful – question.
So, I turn to the worker I am standing with. And I say to her, “that’s just about the most important question I ever heard. How are you going to find out”.
We talk about it for a few minutes and as I leave the program, she is walking down the corridor to her room. And there is an excited bounce in her step. She knows she is off to discover something really important. About the young woman, yes. But also about herself.
So, how about it? Choose a young person. Allow yourself to wonder what it is like to be that young person. And then go find out. One of the things you might discover is that they don’t really believe that you are interested. They might think that you have an unspoken motive. Because, truth be known, in our world, and in theirs, others don’t often really wonder what it is like to be you.
But before you go, there is one thing you might want to do to prepare yourself. Sit down. Relax. Ask yourself, “What is it like to be me?” After all, when you are talking with that young person, you do want to be able to distinguish who’s who.