In this post, OHMA student Yiyi Zhang (2017) reflects on E. Patrick Johnson’s performative approach to story-telling and its relation to understanding and compassion between people.
“Bravo!” Charles said, clapping his hands with a big smile.
“Thank you, sweetie!”, E. Patrick Johnson replied, walking closer to Charles.
Charles covered his face with his hands, starting to shed tears.
“I just saw myself in the mirror, beautiful, thank you, thank you.”
I will never forget this moment when Charles, one narrator from E. Patrick Johnson’s documentary, sees himself performed on stage for the first time, suddenly realizing how many people might have seen his story performed before, and how many people might have had the opportunity to understand him.
E. Patrick Johnson is not only a professor and scholar at Northwestern University, he is also an artist. His performance and play entitled Sweet Tea offers audiences the chance to experience the stories of black gay men in the South in a powerful way. Although Charles had given Johnson permission to perform his story over the years, he had never gone to see the performance himself. As he explains in the documentary, he had not been ready to confront himself before now.
“I just saw myself in the mirror. Beautiful. thank you thank you”
I cannot help but relate to this experience in the context of my struggles in religious identity. How liberating it would be to see someone perform my story, and recognize that portrayal as an accurate reflection of myself. It would mean, that this performer really understood my story; that she were able to empathize with my experience; that she were able to carry herself on stage the way that I carry myself in life. The performer would be connected to the original narrator on an emotional, physical, and in my case, spiritual level as well. Just knowing that another human being has the capacity to connect to, and understand me on this level would already be so encouraging and comforting.
Yet, this is not the end of E. Patrick Johnson’s act of compassion when he performs these stories. Beyond the interior work of empathy necessary for Johnson to embody the story of another, there is also the assertion through public performance that these stories should be heard and seen as well. Johnson becomes not just listener, but also advocate. I am in awe of his process, and of the level of compassion it demonstrates for another human being.
I came to OHMA with the desire to better understand people and to help people understand each other. I have as much interest in becoming a better interviewer and listener as I have in exploring ways that I can most effectively share the stories of others. It is my hope that together we can become more understanding and compassionate toward one another.
How do we become more understanding and compassionate?
Epistemic modesty is a very relevant, and important, concept in my philosophical language, which comes from identifying one’s limited epistemic capacity, and being willing to reconsider the validity of the beliefs that one adheres to. I believe that epistemic modesty is at the core of philosophical inquiries. Just like Socrates, who claims to know nothing but has a deep desire for truth; who goes to the marketplace and finds people to converse with him; to do philosophy requires us to hold all the critical comments back for a second, listen and understand well the opinions and arguments from the other side first, before criticizing them.
These may sound rather abstract, and so, put simply – we need to listen to others - this is fundamental. Rather than engage in abstract arguments, we need to listen to real stories with that person’s character, emotion and cultural background in mind to better contextualize them.
After seeing Johnson’s performance, I will add something else. For us to be more understanding and compassionate, it is necessary to do more than just listen to another person. A further step on the path of compassion is to try to imagine oneself into the world of the other person; to step into their world and see it from their perspective. It can be as big as an on-stage performance, but it can be as small as a one-minute mental exercise – to tell yourself another person’s story in term of “I”.
The question is – are we willing to do it?
Yiyi comes to pursue oral history because of her passion in pursuing and promoting understanding and compassion between people. She holds a B.A. and a M.A. in philosophy. For the past six years, she has been using philosophical frameworks to bridge conceptual gaps between people, but she is excited to explore other media such as audio, video, painting and dancing to share stories and reach holistic understanding of another human being. She is especially interested in interfaith dialogue.