Discernment: Harold’s Story

By Stu Whitley

This is the first post in a three-part series.

O body swayed to music,
O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W.B. Yeats (Among School Children)

I had lunch with an old friend, a Tlingit
elder, Harold, today. I’ve known Harold for nearly a dozen years. And I
know him to be a serious, thoughtful man; he’s someone who has taught
me many things, not the least of which was the powerful consequence of
even the smallest positive intervention in someone’s life. I have seen
it in action: Harold is the embodiment of Emerson’s dictum that it is
one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can
sincerely try to help another without helping himself…”serve and thou
shall be served”. Harold helped me, a lawyer, see love in a loveless

During the hour, he related to me a personal story. He
and his brother had spent a week working with the RCMP on race
relations and cross-cultural understanding – by all accounts a
successful few days. The following week, strolling through a department
store, he noticed a security officer scolding some aboriginal kids, but
passed by. Shortly thereafter, he saw them all outside, the security
man still berating the kids, but in language Harold felt was racist. He
stopped and spoke to the youngsters, saying that inside was a private
matter, but they were entitled to use of the sidewalk. He returned to
his car. Then he saw two police cars pull up quickly, and he thought he
had better return. “I know how these things escalate in the minds of
young people,” he said. “Then they’re angry, it escalates, and they end
up going down a road no one ever imagined. I’ve seen it all before;
I’ve been there.” As he approached, he heard the security guard make
some startling accusations, as well as directing to Harold that this
matter was none of his concern. Harold replied that as long as he felt
there was unfair, racist “bullshit” going on, he would always be

He was seized by the elbow by one of the officers who
had just arrived. Harold jerked his arm away. This time two officers
grabbed him: “You’re under arrest for causing a disturbance.” In spite
of his protest, he was taken forcefully to the cruiser and locked
inside. The young people went on their way. Around the block, the
cruiser stopped. Harold asked why they were stopping. “To check
something,” was the reply. Harold became concerned and angry; he
demanded to be taken to the police station and charged. The officer
said that he’d decided to give Harold “a break and let him go.”
Furious, Harold went straight to the police station and asked to see
the officer in charge: he wanted to make a formal complaint. After
waiting for a time, an officer appeared at the wicket to ask Harold
what he wanted. It was the same office who several minutes earlier, had
locked Harold in a cruiser car. Harold was sad as he related this,
saying only:

had just finished a week of talking about these issues, and without
losing a beat, here was this guy making assumptions about me as just
another goddammed Indian. “I’m starting to feel that we’ve gained no
ground at all.”

His story (which I’ve considerably
shortened here) reminded me that we constantly relate to one another on
the basis of our assumptions about who the other is. Jim Selman,
another thoughtful friend who devotes much of his time contemplating
these things, goes further, calling them ‘assessments’, often made in
advance. Our assessments are neither true nor false, he says, they are
merely judgements arrived at on the basis of what we think we’ve heard
or seen – we fail to make a distinction between truth and those
assessments. He considers that frequently our relationships are not
truly authentic, but merely an exchange of assessments (often I would
say a half-cooked porridge of gossip, half-truths, impressions,
preferences or biases, and one’s own needs) in which the inner person
is seldom discernible. A racist, for example, will never see the real
person in front of him: he will only see a caricature of a human being
for whom he has certain specific and predictable expectations. He will
only ‘see’ what tends to confirm his assumptions. If we stereotype in
our relations, others will always present as already distorted by our
bigotry. We deny that the other person has wisdom.

in my life as a lawyer, I learned that counsel’s special gift is to see
the insides of things: we see the world as a series of transparencies
which, when laid one over the other, form an image of the perfect world
that mankind has imagined for itself. We see inner structures,
processes, histories, aspirations and values; instruments not always
visible to the quotidian eye. But that is as nothing, if we are
incapable of turning that eye inward.

© 2007 Stuart James Whitley. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.