Sara Lempert, from Oakland, California, recently graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior. She currently works as a Legal Advocate in the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, helping clients with mental illness fight for their rights to public benefits and affordable housing.
In one of our house meetings on a recent evening, as we hashed through the potentially touchy issue of practices for communal shabbat with regard to diverse observance styles, the word “comfort” came into the discussion. At first we spoke about ideas of how to plan our communal activities so that everyone would be comfortable. Then a modification of our language was suggested by one of our number, met to many assenting nods and finger wiggling (our chosen visual method of expressing agreement at meetings): We should create spaces where everyone can observe in the ways they need to, but we should not aim for comfort. Instead, we should be consciously pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, experimenting with unfamiliar practices to see how it feels. This “uncomfortable” approach describes so many aspects of the AVODAH program, as our time, space, and ideas are pushed, pulled, prodded, condensed, and expanded in so many ways that “comfort” sometimes feels impossible to achieve and, at least for me, hardly desirable.
On the subway back to Brooklyn the other evening, I reflected on a couple of my recent assignments at work. I have conflicted feelings because I tend to enjoy more the assignments where I really feel like I am contributing substantially, such as staffing a clinic where I am starting to transition into doing intake in Spanish or researching and writing follow-up letters with advice and referrals. At the same time, however, these positions of responsibility make me nervous because I know that any mistakes I make may have serious consequences for my clients, even if it is simply an unknowing omission of potentially useful information. Some of the more mundane tasks I do, such as data reporting to our funders, are more comfortable for me because while they are still critical to my organization, they have less direct influence on the lives of our clients and thus less risk of harming peoples’ lives. For this precise reason, however, I find them less invigorating — I prefer to challenge myself and learn to be successful at more advanced elements of advocacy, those that our clients need someone to take the initiative to excel at, rather than stay in the comfortable land of simpler tasks for which there will always be a supply of willing and able interns. In this context, I see discomfort in my work as growing pains essential to my progression from infancy to adulthood in advocacy.
Similarly, in my participation in a communal kitchen (a first, for me), I’ve had to say goodbye to comfort food, but I am getting the incredible opportunity to taste dishes that are new to me but comfort food for others. The slight grumblings of my stomach that resound some nights when I come back from work and have to wait for that night’s chefs to finish cooking are well worth it when in exchange for the delay I get to enjoy not only a home-cooked meal but also the company of my 9 other kitchen-mates (and if I’m lucky, drifters from the other kitchens!). This homey atmosphere is a treat for me after suffering through many meals in college bent over a last-minute paper at my desk. I have learned to cook new types of food, and found out that not everyone cuts onions in the same way (although most people appear to be tearing up equally much — there seems to be a general consensus that the onions out here in Brooklyn are particularly pungent). My first reaction when I see someone using a different chopping technique is usually a little alarm in my head chirping that something is going wrong, but my more reasonable reaction, though slower in coming, realizes that their technique is often just as effective if not more so than my personal traditional one. Through my rotating assignments of cooking partners throughout the year, exposing me to alternative methods and cuisines, I expect I will improve my own cooking abilities.
In our program this week, Jackie Mondros, Dean of the School of Social Work at Hunter College spoke about “overcoming the strangeness” that might arise from differences between our clients and ourselves. I agree that it is important to address and work through differences such as age, position, race, socioeconomic status, educational background, gender, sexual orientation, health, language, and many other categories that might create barriers or misunderstanding in our relationships with our clients. The process of thinking of where our clients may be coming from in these areas can help us better achieve “anticipatory empathy,” as Jackie termed it — a more finely-tuned form of empathy adjusted to the specific background information we know about each individual client. While Jackie’s notion of “strangeness” may seem similar to discomfort, I think there is an important distinction between the positive process of “overcoming strangeness” and the negative process of avoiding discomfort. “Comfort,” to me, smacks a bit too much of complacency, of settling into a more passive state. Overcoming strangeness, on the other hand, needs to be an active process and an ongoing one. I think of a select subset of workers at various public benefit agencies about whom I often hear complaints in my office; some of these workers become a bit too comfortable in viewing the client as the enemy, and seem to engage in a sort of anticipatory antipathy. There are many factors that might contribute to this phenomenon — perhaps these people have seen one too many troublesome clients or are subconsciously attempting to cope with facing so many tragic situations through denial. In our social justice work, these forces of estrangement will likely confront us Avodahniks as well. I hope to stay constantly vigilant against the alluring comfort of operating on assumptions about my clients or relying on what I know about situations, and instead embrace the discomfort of truly trying to assess each individual with the open-minded attention they deserve and striving in any situation to always learn more.