In our latest blog post, Dominican Volunteer Kathleen McKenzie tells us of an unexpected and profound experience she had in her ministry with teenagers. Serving with Dominican Volunteers USA gives us the opportunity to learn more about others as well as ourselves. Kathleen serves in the Counseling Department at Immaculate Conception Academy, an all-girls Catholic Cristo Rey high school in San Francisco California. Thank you for your service, Kathleen!
Although possibly an unpopular opinion, I find teenagers very refreshing to be around. Unlike most adults who speak carefully given restrictions of social etiquette, teenagers, in their boldness, speak their minds quite freely and openly. Even though teenagers can be self-conscious and awkward, they can also be paradoxically blunt and confident. For example, I think of a student who I will sometimes chaperone in the morning to work or who I will see around campus. The student’s disposition is overall kind, friendly, and open, and, thus, she is a student I am beginning to know well during my year of service. The student is self-conscious about her appearance and her academic abilities, but she is confident when expressing other opinions. I particularly think of her response when I asked her about the design of a poster that I had made in the counseling office a few weeks ago. The student responded to me by saying that the poster was ugly in an honest and fair tone. While another student reproached her, telling her that I had made the poster, I laughed. As I was chuckling, I noticed the student’s face turn to dismay as she realized that she had just possibly insulted a staff member. But, before she could say anything, I thanked her for her comment through my fits of laughter.
I was laughing partially because I was met with a response that I did not expect. Prior to students joining us in the counseling office, I was sharing my disappointment of my poster with my co-workers. Well before I asked the student if my poster was ugly, I had already determined the poster to be an aesthetic failure; it was clear to me that I made the wrong decision to paint in typed letters and to glue, remove, and reattach the same pieces of paper to the same poster several times. Although I was disappointed with my poster, my co-workers kept trying to reassure me that it was fine, and that it looked okay. When I asked the student about my poster, I expected the student to follow suit with my co-workers by making attempted comments of reassurance. But, the student did not respond that way; she told me told me that the poster was ugly. Met with the unanticipated and the unusual, I laughed.
Although the exchange turned out to be a lighthearted moment, it could have taken another turn. It is possible that the student could have hurt my feelings by giving her opinion on my poster. What if I believed my poster to be a true artistic masterpiece, and I was very proud to show it to the students I made it for. The student could have shattered my confidence with her bluntness, and caused me to believe that she neglected my feelings by sharing her opinion. However, the student was not taking a stab at my artistic abilities, she was merely stating her opinion about the aesthetics of a poster. I asked her a question, and she answered me honestly. She was not coming from a malicious place. In fact, she was coming from quite an opposite one. If she knew that I had made the poster, she may not have answered me in the way she did. To spare my feelings, she may have been more tactful in telling her opinion. Although this kind of response would have been suggestive of her having a kind heart, if she had responded to me in that way, her response would have lacked the beauty of the bare honesty of her direct response.
A sensitive person may find it difficult to share plain, honest opinions in conversations regarding sensitive topics. For fear of alienating, marginalizing, and/or hurting her interlocutor, she might forgo stating her opinion on a delicate subject directly, and, instead, she might adjust her language by softening it to prevent any possible uncomfortable situations from arising. I have experienced this difficulty when discussing differences of faith and morality with others. As a Catholic Christian woman, I maintain beliefs which stand in direct contradiction to popular beliefs of modern culture. I have increasingly struggled with sharing my honest opinions with people who do not share my faith and/or moral perspective of the world. I believe that my struggling is a sign of my growing empathy for others, and, so, I do not pray for my difficulties to disappear. I do pray for more opportunity to learn how to maintain both honesty and compassion in potentially inflammatory conversations.
Social exchanges like the poster exchange I describe above are answers to my prayers. The poster exchange was an honest one, and, yet, the student was compassionate. The comment itself may not have seemed compassionate, but the student evidently was. Her expression molded into one of concern when she realized that I had made the poster. Even though she may not have intended to, she demonstrated to me that one can be honest without compromising one’s empathy. She expressed an honest opinion, and she recognized that that opinion may have had a negative impact on me. So, she responded accordingly by preparing to receive and reply to my possible negative reaction to her candor. The possibility of my negative reaction does not discount the value of her honesty. Our words and actions importantly have meaning, and being knowledgeable about how they can impact others is an ability of compassion. Acknowledging the importance of the meaning of words and actions, an ability of honesty is to value that importance through our choices of words and actions. Honesty and compassion do not juxtapose one another. In their best expressions, I believe they work in tandem beautifully with one another, and together have the ability to lead one into fruitful, loving relationships. Although it is easy for me to say this, I find it difficult to express as a life practice.
It makes sense to me that I responded to the poster exchange with laughter. I experienced joy as a result of unexpectedly experiencing something be done so simply and naturally that to me seems so difficult and rarely done. I often find that I am unexpectedly filled with joy throughout my ministry, since teenagers are bursting with surprising and insightful thoughts and actions. God has a way of teaching me through small, seemingly insignificant moments and interactions. I pray that He further opens my eyes to the lessons of honesty and compassion throughout my service year.