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  • Writer's pictureRich Haglund

A law student, a journalist, and a count walk into your workplace . . .

If Bryan Stevenson, Isabel Wilkerson, and Alexander Rostov walked into your workplace, what would they find? Would they see people making inclusive spaces for others to work, grow, and build community?

Bryan Stevenson visited death row for the first time during an internship in law school. Recounted in his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson felt completely inadequate, didn't know how he could possibly be helpful to Henry, the man he met there. His sole purpose was to let Henry know that he wouldn't be executed for at least a year.

Stevenson stumbled through an introduction, intimidated by the space, the harsh way the guards treated Henry, and the disdain they signaled to Stevenson. Once Henry heard the news, he relaxed, thanked Stevenson profusely, and started sharing about himself. The conversation continued and absorbed Stevenson completely. When it was time for Henry to return to his cell, the guard shoved him on his way, but Henry sang an old hymn Stevenson knew. It was a song about "pressing on," praying for the Lord to "plant [our] feet on Higher Ground."

Looking back on the experience, Stevenson explained that his misjudgment of Henry stemmed not from a conscious or subconscious belief about Henry's worth relative to Stevenson's. Instead, he misjudged Henry because he was concerned about himself: "I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy." Stevenson added,

I didn't expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.

In her book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson wrote, "humans size up and make assumptions about other humans based upon what they look like many times a day." As the Count's fictional example and Bryan Stevenson's very real example show, we make those assumptions for a variety of reasons. Wilkerson explained that "we are all born into a silent war game, centuries old, enlisted in teams not of our own choosing. The side to which we are assigned in the American system of categorizing people is proclaimed by the team uniform that each caste wears, signaling our presumed worth and potential." She despaired and celebrated what our experience means:

That any of us manages to create abiding connections across these manufactured divisions is a testament to the beauty of the human spirit.

Count Alexander Rostov is the main character in Amor Towles' book, A Gentleman in Moscow. He is sentenced to house arrest (in a very nice hotel, mind you) when the Bolsheviks assume power in the 1920s. One day, the Count meets a woman in the lobby. Based on how he observes her treating others and her dogs, he deems her haughty beyond repair. The woman, Anna Urbanova, later invites the Count to dinner. There, she relates a very different upbringing than the Count imagined she had. As he reflects upon the conversation, the Count reflects on "the virtues of withholding judgment. After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we've just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli." The Count concludes,

By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration--and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

You don't have to read all three books. Though I recommend them all heartily.

Instead, I invite you to take some time this week--at work, at home, or anywhere else you interact with people--to take a few minutes to get to know someone else. Spend your next check in with a team member just getting to know each other better. Just sit by your teenager and listen--even if it's while she's watching a show you can't stand. Exchange some assumptions for knowledge. Replace your own anxiety with trust in others' generosity and compassion toward you!

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