Perspective Taking

Born a Crime

NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

I’m thinking a lot about empathy lately.  I am less cynical today than I might have been a few months ago, maybe.  I have uttered the words, “People suck” more this year than any other year in my life, perhaps.  But maybe writing about things I’m for rather than things I’m against, or reflecting on things I have learned and am learning, and from whom I’m learning them, has given me some hope.

Another person who gives me hope is Trevor Noah.  I mentioned in the first post of this month that I listened to his book, Born A Crime.  He really is an impressive and worldly young man, and I look forward to following his career and life for a while yet.

The best part about the book is the accents and impressions that Trevor does throughout his reading.  I have not actually read the book, but I am sure that hearing it on Audible is much, much better.  The second best part about the book is the actual book.  It’s a memoir, you must hear it!  In a series of non-chronological and yet expertly woven stories, he describes his childhood and adolescence in South Africa, son of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father.  Apartheid, outright racism, family conflict, domestic abuse and violence, crime, he lived it all.  Any of it would have probably killed me—jumping out of moving cars, for instance.  But he tells it both matter-of-factly, and with tremendous love.  I don’t mean that he loved all the terrible things that happened to him; rather I feel he has a deep and abiding love of humanity.  He accepts that it all happened and made him who he is today; I hear no resentment or bitterness.  He especially reveres his mother, and rightly so, she is a total Badass Mama Goddess.  I won’t give any of it away, you just gotta hear the book, she is UH-MAZING.  She is the best part of the book.

No, actually, the best part of the book is Noah’s ability to convey his understanding of everybody’s perspective in his life.  He translates for us the mindset of his independent mother, his stoic father, his wise grandmother, his friends from various, sometimes opposing, ethnic groups, and his hotheaded stepfather, among others.  At the same time he describes unbelievable atrocities committed by others, he does not vilify them.  There is never a hint of victimhood in a life story full of loss, poverty, and violence.  Hearing his perspective, and then his explanations of various other people’s perspectives, I was reminded that everybody’s point of view is shaped by so many things that I cannot possibly know even a part of it.  Every single human is a product and a manifestation of all of their genes, environment, experiences, and influences.  Every single one of us is unique.  And yet, most of the time, I make assumptions about what other people think, how they feel, what must motivate them, as if I know.  I think we all do this more than we’d like to admit.  I just wrote yesterday about how we humans have the capacity to relate, despite our disparate experiences.  Today I consider the flip side of that, which is ‘othering’ people by ignoring shared humanity, denying that capacity, repressing it.

Trevor Noah practices perspective taking as a routine.  I think that’s what makes him such a gifted comedian.  Comedy shows us our foibles so we might reflect but not so much that we feel shame.  He did this beautifully recently speaking about the migrant caravan from Honduras:

I’ve noticed other news networks in America specifically seem to focus on what the caravan means for America, and less on what the caravan means to the people in the caravan. 

He recalls growing up in South Africa, seeing news about Zimbabwe during the worst times of Robert Mugabe’s rule.  South Africans understood why Zimbabweans were leaving the country and coming to South Africa.  They may or may not have wanted them to come, but they nevertheless related to the motivations for migration.  He contrasts this with how Central American migrants are painted as threatening criminals, coming to pillage and plunder America.  This prevents us from acknowledging our shared humanity, from seeing ourselves in those around us.  It divides us unnecessarily and to the detriment of us all.

I have done a poor job explaining Trevor Noah’s comedic and humanitarian genius.  But seriously, just read (no, listen to!) his book, and watch his Between the Scenes videos on Facebook.  They are uplifting and fun.

Good night!

2 thoughts on “Perspective Taking

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