Resilient Space and the Necessity of Discomfort

“The idea of safe space is a Utopian ideal.” — Laurie Patton, President of Middlebury College

Despite how often we hear and use the phrase “safe space” in interfaith work, the harsh truth is that striving for “safe space” in regards to interfaith work and education is a Utopian ideal best abandoned; what we should work to build with students and collaborators is a resilient space.

This idea is not new, though I have recently laid claim to this term with excitement. I struggle with the phrase “safe space” because it offers a false idea about what is going to happen. “Safe space rules” could be summarized as “be honest, be brave, be thoughtful”, which are important guidelines, but they do not say “You won’t be hurt or offended” or “you won’t accidentally offend someone else”, which are equally important. In my opening spiel with students I always include the fact that at one point everyone may feel uncomfortable, everyone is going to be clumsy, so we need to be gracious about it. By defining this space as resilient rather than safe, we recognize that offense might take place, microaggressions might raise their ugly heads, mistakes will happen, and we will be able to bounce back and move forward. More importantly, we will be able to move forward together, not simply out of this space and into our individual lives.

This idea of resilience as opposed to safety is important for the initial phase of dialogue and mutual learning, and even more so for working together towards justice and communal good. One place we might forget this work is happening is the classroom, where we are fostering and training future leaders, change-makers, and activists. We need to teach our students to be resilient, and to demand the same resilience of others. We need to model it.

In the past year, we have heard a lot about trigger warnings, microaggressions, and forms of invisible trauma in the classroom. I simultaneously recognize and respect the real, painful truth of such experiences for many, as well as the necessity of learning to be comfortable with discomfort.

I believe that everyone should have the right to education, and that education should be challenging. The value of liberal arts education, specifically, is that we are exposed to different and often contradictory points of view that teach us how to analyze arguments, think through complex situations, apply our own experiences to new events, and think critically about those voices with whom we agree as much as those with whom we disagree. Much of higher education is directed towards professional development and skills-building, and offers opportunities for students to practice being citizens of the world. The classroom (perhaps the entire campus) is a laboratory. We experiment, we get varied results, and we experiment again. There are regulations and structures that make the classroom a safer space for this than the sidewalk, precisely because the ultimate goal is not to teach students how to do everything perfectly the first time around (although, of course we want to teach skills and practices that will make success more likely), but how to recover and learn from the inevitable times when we fail or come up short. This is true of interfaith work just as its true of business administration or economic analysis.

For many students, college is the time when they are first exposed to greater diversity of ideas, beliefs, passions, expressions, and cultures. This is as challenging and potentially disorienting for students raised in pluralistic liberal progressive communities as it is for students raised in conservative homogenous ones. Some students might have their religious or philosophical values challenged in the classroom, some may be uncomfortable to be faced with their privilege or sudden minority status, some might be overwhelmed by the social expectations, by the ever-surmounting stress of higher education, or of the competing needs of their schoolwork, their families, and their communities. We know diversity does not get simpler after college. The world is rapidly globalizing, and that means that people with different beliefs, priorities, practices, and ideas are bumping into each other in every corner with more frequency and with more intention. Our job as educators is to prepare students for that world. Our job is to help them become comfortable with their discomfort, and to use that discomfort to move forward. Our job is to help them build resilient spaces in their lives and in their relationships. Our job is even more difficult when we are not meeting students in college classrooms, but this is one place to begin.

Generally speaking, we like to be comfortable. Somewhere along the way, we may have prioritized comfort to a level that is potentially damaging to our continued development into adulthood and global citizenship. We should not have the right to forgo learning about the difficult, uncomfortable aspects of our history, or the challenging and heart-breaking state of many of our fellow humans around the world today. We cannot shy away from difficult topics that spark disagreement, such as conversations about religious, political, or other ideological beliefs. If we are not exposed to disagreement, how can we learn to navigate those conversations in respectful, productive ways? How do we learn to evaluate our own positions? To be self-reflective and admit when we are wrong or need more information? Disorientation is hugely important, and should be a valued part of the growth experience. When the rug is pulled out from under you, you learn how to find your balance and confident footing. As educators, we want to see students succeed, but we need to question the idea that students should be able to sit comfortably and unchallenged while they do so.

This is the beginning of a much larger conversation, one that discusses the power dynamics of the classroom and the many other important elements left untouched here, not least of which is how this aspect of education plays out for those of us who do not attend college or even finish high school.

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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