TAoN No. 66: A Humility Lesson
When the best answer is a question. PLUS: Missing words, a new icebreaker, and more
The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas that have come along since the book.
When A Question Is The Answer
THE PROMPT: Notice when you are about to make a judgment — and ask a question instead.
One of the wince-inducing rituals of my job as a journalist is transcribing interviews and listening to myself fail to listen. There’s always at least one moment when I miss a chance to pursue (or even step on or get in the way of) a source’s smart point or original observation by rushing to (try to) make my own. This is a failure of attention on my part — and a failure of humility, too.
I’ve been thinking lately about humility and its connection to attention and noticing thanks to Radical Humility: Essays On Ordinary Acts, a new collection of short essays edited by Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek. A range of contributors address the value (and often the absence) of humility in politics, art, journalism, education, and daily life. The essays are full of useful insights, and I think the project as a whole is well-timed — I know I’m not the only person who has been rethinking goals, ambitions, and values as a result of this pandemic era, and cultivating humility is certainly part of that rethink.
I’ve written in the past about Modrak, a writer and artist who teaches at the University of Michigan, and consider her a friend and hero of TAoN. So I asked if she might suggest a prompt/assignment, and she answered right away:
“A simple but challenging one that I've been trying since reading Melissa Koenig and Valerie Tiberius's essay in the book about how to be a better friend (... parent, sibling, colleague, etc.) is to notice when I'm about to make a judgment and to ask a question instead.
More broadly, the Koenig (a psychology professor) and Tiberius (a philosophy professor) essay — “Don’t Be A Know-It-All: Or, How To Be A Better Friend” — argues for a humility in relating to others that includes admitting what we don’t know, and committing to giving others the opportunity to share a perspective we may have missed.
“I don't think of myself as a judgy person,” Modrak continues, “but once I start to pay attention, this technique is more needed in my life than I like to admit.” This can involve the way she responds to anything from her daughter’s pie-making technique to her students’ artwork. “Sometimes I'm missing a key piece of information that makes the difference in how I might respond.”
“According to Koenig and Tiberius, asking a question also helps to establish trust by showing that you're interested in hearing what your friend/child/colleague has to say. My assignment for myself is to be attentive throughout the day to each moment when I'm tempted to make a judgment about someone else's choices, to keep track of those moments, and to ask a question before making any judgment.”
A great assignment. And a lesson in the value of humility. More about the book, which I am enjoying, here.
Dictionary of Missing Words
Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.
This week’s submission is from reader riley jean in the comments.
The moments in interactions where one of the parties decides to accept miscommunication for the overall good of a conversation. Like when you can't understand what someone's saying and you've asked "what?" too many times, so you take the gamble that it wasn't important and go "ohhh I see, yeah haha..." so you can move on. Needs a word!
There might actually be more than one missing word here, because I feel like there should also be a word for the phrase, tone, and bodily attitudes one uses to signal the neutral-ish agreement that allows one to move on. Anyway, love this — thanks!
UPDATE: In TAoN No. 66, the Missing Word, from readier Jamie, was: “We need a word for mourning the loss of something you never had. For example, the career you didn't choose or the person you didn't marry.”
This brought two interesting responses. One came from reader Kelly, in the comments: “My husband and I refer to these as ‘ghost ships,’ stealing words Cheryl Strayed used in her incredible book Tiny Beautiful Things. If you haven’t read it, may I wholeheartedly recommend it to you?? So good.”
The other came from reader Meg Allwein, via email: “‘A word for mourning the loss of something you never had’ = saudade. It's a Portuguese word with very nuanced meanings, one of which is exactly what Jamie was looking for. I first encountered this word about a year ago and -- as such discoveries often do -- it has come up many times since then.”
Thank you! I love hearing that maybe words aren’t missing after all, they were maybe just laying low.
What else should add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion (or respond to this one) in the comments.
Icebreaker Of The Week
Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)
“Every year when I teach identity politics I ask the same question on the first day of class. Rather than the usual icebreakers, I ask: ‘How does your family / your culture cook rice?’”
The thread (which is worth reading) goes on to explain how Spry uses “this little question about rice to transition to a more substantive discussion about how the same topic can mean many things to different people, and the way we engage with difference matters.”
Anna adds: “I liked [the question] so much, I use it all the time in my creative writing classes.” Indeed, it is a great question — and the way Spry uses it is invaluable. Her spirit is worth emulating, perhaps more than ever.
As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:
Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to firstname.lastname@example.org
In Other News
@astridchamberland.be. (I hope it says something nice!)
The Weekly Thingdown: Sparkly jets, bulletproof school desk, Ken, etc. My weekly roundup of things — objects, products, stuff — that are lately in the news or otherwise of interest right now.
I really like the work of artist Maria Mavropoulou. I discovered her by way of her “Typology of Waiting,” which I particularly dig. Please buy it for me! (Just kidding.) Not kidding: the “Family Portraits” series on her site is great, too. And other work there. Anyway, I’m excited to have learned about her and look forward to more. (Turns out she’s also on Instagram; there’s a “Typology of Waiting” sample there, too.)
17 Blocks, absolutely amazing documentary by friend of TAoN Davy Rothbart. Highly recommended.
Laura Paresky Gould “Capturing the color of Miami in 2021.”
Street rt that only “works” at a certain time of day. Bravo!
Streetsblog’s annual “Sorriest Bus Stop” bracket-style competition is underway.
Go here and scroll down a bit for 30 minutes of Talking Heads performing at The Kitchen in 1976 — so early it was before Jerry Harrison joined. Via the excellent S/FJ newsletter, and also via excellent friend of TaON Sam Jackson.
Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks. Unless I suddenly make good on my threat to go weekly. We’ll see!
This Is Probably Obvious, But…
I really can’t thank you all enough for the responses and ideas you share here week after week, it’s really a constant source of enjoyment, enlightenment, and surprise. None of you are obligated to chime in, but those who wish to: Please keep passing along your useful thoughts and/or reactions to things other readers have shared.
And as always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments!
Thanks for reading …
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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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