As a researcher, I’m trying to get better at losing myself.
I see my job as creating open space for other people’s words and stories. I do this by bringing as little of myself as possible into the interactions I have with interviewees.
It’s not like I say nothing; quite the converse. I practice active listening. I aim to provide well-timed, brief, and contextual prompts, so that those I’m speaking to can figure out what it is they have to say.
As I examine my motivations, it’s hard to distinguish. Do I employ manipulation, or is it allowing? Am I getting people to open up? Or am I trying to get people to like me? Trust me?
When I talk about the weather, mention my upbringing in Southern California, sprinkle anecdotes of my dad the Dodgers and Lakers fan, I’m not being indulgent. I’m trying to find common ground, to remind the person on the other side that I’m a real person. Not a cipher.
But this time we spend together is about them, not me. We’re there to focus on what they’re saying. I’m proud when I can tie things they mention earlier to things they’re exploring later. I wish I could always be this present and engaged in my primary relationship, in my daughterhood, sisterhood, and in my friendships.
But practicing at being better in my job sometimes does spill over into real life.
I’m struggling right now with a complicated family relationship. My brother and his ex-wife are filling out financial aid applications for their daughter Maya. It’s stirring up the old, bad days between them. It’s bringing up, for me, the ways in which I’ve helped, not helped, meddled, run away, and put my head into the sand.
For me, it’s bringing up the ways I failed to appreciate and forgive my father. The hurt I nursed for many years after he missed a key deadline with my paperwork. I had to go to work while attending classes from my sophomore year forward, and had to borrow money for school after a blissful, debt-free, work-free freshman year.
This turn of events made me stronger, more organized, and focused. I cut back on partying and took a hard look at how it affected my grades, which in turn affected my qualifications for a full-ride scholarship — just as much as my dad’s missed deadline did.
Each action, word, choice — even each inaction — affects the flow of our inter-relatedness with one another. There are things I could say to my brother, my sister-in-law, and my niece. There are things I shouldn’t say. I don’t always know the proper boundaries to set.
I aim to be an empty vessel, letting people think what they will of me. Or not at all. I can’t control how I’m perceived. Only what I say and do.
In this case, saying as little as possible is the best. Doing and giving is what’s required.