Archive for September, 2021

Fifteen years ago, actor and director Clint Eastwood made two films about the World War II battle for the Pacific island of Iwo Jima — one told from the perspective of American soldiers, one from the perspective of Japanese soldiers.

The juxtaposition illustrates what is meant by the phrase “context is everything” — as well as a number of other brief sayings we frequently use but rarely analyze.

For instance, “Don’t judge another man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”

The broad truth behind that saying is that any individual’s lived experience is the context that shapes his or her life and how that person perceives the world and reacts to it.

Dr. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at the University of London, says your brain makes sense of the information it is presented based on you have experienced before.

“The functional structure of your brain is literally a representation of your history. We only ever see what was useful to see in the past,” he said.

Two people with different experiences can watch the same event and interpret it differently because their experiences create their assumptions about how the world works and how others behave.

This is why it is useful, regardless of your own background and experiences, to listen to and read about the experiences of people who are different than you. You don’t know their stories.

All this was brought to mind last week by the last sentence of the letter that the local NAACP sent out reacting to how the City Council responded to its call for a commission to study the issue of reparations: “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.”

The website Afriprov.org, which explores African proverbs, says there are a number of variations in the wording of this proverb, but all deal with context and the parts of a story that are left out in the retelling.

“When a hunter brings home a lion … it may very well be due to the hunter’s skills, but it may as well be due to pure luck. The lion might have been sleeping or injured. No matter in what circumstances the lion is killed, a hunter will always tell a story that makes the hunter shine. Is the hunter telling the true story or just bragging? No one will ever know,” the website says.

“This Ewe-mina proverb refers to this unknown part of the struggle between the lion and the hunter because … a story is never complete until one hears from both sides.”

The key word is “hearing,” which means not just hearing the words but understanding, before concluding what the speaker really means, the experiences that shaped the perceptions of the person who is speaking and what those perceptions are.

When another person has a radically different interpretation of an event than you do, trying to make sense of the difference can be difficult, as Lotto explains.

“We hate to have our assumptions questioned because it creates uncertainty, which leads to stress. Your brain hates uncertainty,” Lotto says. “Yet the best questions are the ones that create the most uncertainty; the questions that challenge what I assume to be true already.”

The U.S. State Department has a website offering new diplomats a primer in understanding cultural differences and communication styles called “So You’re an American? A guide to answering difficult questions abroad.”

Its lessons could be broadly applied at home as well. Misunderstanding doesn’t begin at the water’s edge.

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