Writing Exercises My Respect Muscles (Writing As a Spiritual Discipline Series)

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“Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.” (Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace)

In South Africa where I lived for many years, the basic “hello” greeting, sawubona, translates literally, “I see you.” In this mundane greeting, people declare to each other a tiny reminder that “I see you as a human, and I respect you.”

Writing offers an opportunity to say the same: “I see you; I respect you.” In writing, we slow down long enough to see other people’s lives and care about other people’s matters.

In my work as an anthropologist, I write most often about people. To prepare for writing, I listen, I watch, I visit, and I live among people. The warm mug of tea prepared by a woman I interview, the smell of chicken manure in the factory where I spend a day, or the energy of a hip hop artist as he closes his eyes to improvise, all remind me of the shared humanity involved in writing. As anthropologist Irma McClaurin writes:

“We have taken upon our shoulders an enormous responsibility that is beyond any allegiance we might owe to the academy or any desire for tenure. We hold in our words, real people’s lives.” (Anthropology Off the Shelf)

At its best, writing is more than a chance to exercise our brains, build our CVs, or inform an audience. It offers a gift to those heard and seen in the process. As I write, I remember people like Mtoko, a young South African man with tattooed arms and a debilitating drug addiction, who shouted jubilantly after me on the first day I visited his home, “She’s gonna tell my story in America!” I think of Thembi, a mother of ten adopted children, who thanked me for writing about her life saying, “You heard even more than I spoke.”

If you write from data more distanced from human experience, still your words hold human lives. Writing from government records, rain water samples, historical fiction, or economic models, you describe and affect human lives.

Often in Christian organizations I find the words “voiceless” and “invisible” used to describe people. Living in Nicaragua, China, South Africa, and among refugees in the United States, I have yet to meet anyone invisible or without a voice. I have, however, met others who do not care to hear or see. I know many busy people—myself included some days—who spend life too blind and deaf to respect other humans.

Writing gives the space to see people as they deserve to be seen. Madeleine L’Engle writes,

“The artist cannot hold back; it is impossible, because writing, or any other discipline of art, involves participation in suffering, in the ills and the occasional stabbing joys that come from being part of the human drama” (Walking on Water).

At our best as writers, we slow down, we see, and we respect people.


Image courtesy of Pexels at Pixabay.com.

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Christine Jeske

Christine Jeske has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches anthropology at Wheaton College. She has lived in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa and authored two books, Into the Mud: True Stories from Africa and This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. She now lives in an old farmhouse named the Sanctuary, complete with a dozen chickens, three pigs, innumerable weeds, two children, and one wonderful husband.

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