Kent Nerburn’s book Neither Wolf nor Dog has been a revealing read for me. I’ve learned a lot about native American tribes, but I’ve also seen in Nerburn a reflection of my own attempts to enter into a new culture, understand it and communicate. Like Nerburn, I’ve often felt awkward, bungling, unsure.
In the previous blog, I suggested Nerburn is an example of empathetic listening—setting aside judgment to hear from the perspective of another. It requires entering the world of the other with its culture and values, which also requires setting aside one’s own culture and values, not permanently, but momentarily, for the sake of listening and learning.
There is yet a deeper level of empathetic listening on display in the book. At this level, the listener steps behind the eyes of the speaker to look back at himself through those eyes. It is seeing oneself through the eyes of the other.
The most moving chapter of the book is titled “Storm” (chapter 23). Nerburn’s descriptive prose pulls the reader into a tornado, sweeping across the plains just as the sun is setting. Dan appears to communicate with spirits as the dark storm lashes the grasslands with lightning, hail and gale-force winds, all vividly related from the back seat of Grover’s Buick. When the storm subsides, Grover initiates a conversation of another kind of storm that once lashed these plains—the bygone massacres of native American tribes. Grover hopes to coax Dan to contribute his knowledge. Dan castigates himself for looking back. “I should not throw my mind back…I should live here in the life I have. I should think about my grandchildren and my great grandchildren.” But the Lakota elder cannot escape. “The spirits of our dead fill the skies.”
Reluctantly, hauntingly, Dan relates the history of Lakota massacres at the hands of white soldiers…women and children, grandmothers and grandfathers. Their blood slaked the thirst of fighters, bored by the ease of battle. Predictably, Lakota braves, rejecting the advice of their elders, sought revenge on innocent white people. The cycle of violence spun out of control.
The geyser of Dan’s repressed anger erupts on his new friend Nerburn:
What if someone raped your little sister? … What if someone took your pregnant wife and slit open her belly…? We were taught that the old people and the babies were the closest to God and it was for them that we all lived. They were the most helpless and they needed us the most. And your people came in and killed them. We couldn’t protect them…you were too strong.
As I read, I felt myself trying to divert the eyes of my mind from the agony of the scene. Nerburn’s response: “I felt great shame come across me.”
That’s why this second level of empathetic listening is even harder than the first. It’s no longer about setting aside our pre-judgments. Now it’s about facing our shadow-self…the history that we have built collectively and how we continue to benefit at the expense of victims who remain nameless to us but fill the night sky of Dan’s tribal memory.
There’s an easy out, of course: “Children are not guilty for the sins of their fathers. I wasn’t there. You can’t pin that on me.” You can take that out. No one will blame you.
But for some, stepping into that place with intentionality is necessary. It is a step of ownership, of corporate responsibility, a recognition of oppression, a healing posture for both victim and oppressor.
I understand Nerburn that way. His months with Dan and Grover culminated in this poignant scene. Dan desires to tell the story…to dignify his people by making the transgression known. “Forgive and forget” is naïve sentimentality. Wounds remain, fester, re-open. Nerburn is Dan’s voice to the world so that, now, the reader knows Dan’s story. I do. I’ve felt it viscerally.
I’m concerned when I listen to our cultural and political rhetoric. I hear self-preservation, tribalism, cynicism, condescension, stereotypes, labels. I hear vindictive speech and superficial caricatures of opposing views. Polarization is the stock in trade of our collective speech, leading to the fragmentation of society. I’m grateful that some well-meaning folks try to heal the breach. May their tribe increase. To join them, might we take a lesson from Dan and Nerburn in empathetic listening? An “army of listeners” spanning the gamut of social and ethnic divisions that are driving us into madness and chaos would surely make a difference. If it is too much to hope for a healing wave across our nation, perhaps at least, we could help dissipate the rage that rules the hearts of some, restore dignity to a deeply wounded humanity, love our neighbor.
If we are to become healers of the breach and peace-makers, it will require internal work and some new tools. More on that to come…