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TOAD Talk: Cilantro, Chocolate, and Compassionate Curiosity

Raul Soto
"Having the courage to be vulnerable in times of conflict is so much more likely to lead to the intimacy and understanding we all need to navigate our world’s issues."
An honor and responsibility for the TOAD (teacher on active duty) most Mondays is to give what’s called a TOAD Talk at the day’s Assembly. The topics of each talk are completely up to the TOAD and have ranged from sea slugs and feminism to vampire bats and glitter. A recent talk by Raul Soto (Admission Officer, Los Padres Dorm Head, and Associate for both the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Director of Student Life's Office) focused on compassionate curiosity. Read on for a transcript of his talk.
 
Hello! For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Mr. Soto. A couple of fun facts I want all of you to know about me: 

These are kinda scandalous:
  1. I HATE the taste of raw onions and cilantro. I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that genetically cilantro tastes like soap to some people. I’m gonna be honest, I have no idea what soap tastes like, all I know is that cilantro brings a lot of negativity into my life.
  2. I also really really dislike frosted mini wheats. They taste like cardboard and unholiness to me.
  3. And speaking of unholiness, dark chocolate. A little back story: When I was a student at Thacher we were exploring the different pH levels of food, and I was the unfortunate soul that had to taste the 100% cacao. And now I just don’t know how anyone could ever play themselves by eating dark chocolate.
 
So, I said some things there, some of you might have agreed. Some of you might have very very strongly disagreed. But the fact remains that no matter what your stance no one except for me truly feels exactly what I experience when I taste onions, cilantro, frosted mini wheats or the foolishness that is Dark Chocolate.

And I will be honest, I’m still judging the silly onion and dark chocolate lovers in the crowd.

Notice how in that moment, calling ya’ll onion and dark chocolate lovers I created a label that solidified some of you as an opposing viewpoint to me. This label might impact how seriously I take food recommendations by you. Might incentivize some of you to taunt me whenever you see onions in the dining hall. And there’s clearly judgment there, on both sides. Because the experience of being labeled and shamed for being a lover of onion or dark chocolate is something that may have an impact on some of ya’ll. I want us to remember that similar judgment often takes place for things less trivial than a preference for dark chocolate and onions.

Now let me share one thing I personally really love.
Anime. Anime is a wide range of Japanese animated tv shows and films. I most often enjoy action/adventure stories undertaken by both heroes and villains. As a child I was most definitely a hero type of guy! I would cheer on the hero’s and want them to win, and I hated the villains and hated the mean things they did.

As an adult, I notice that in many of these stories, the heroes are never without flaw. They have serious imperfections that they must confront before becoming their best selves. Despite these character flaws, I remain open to seeing the “hero’s” potential to become their best selves and see them as quintessentially good. The villains though.. mm mm. I would shame them, and call them trash and to me they were villains so there’s no point in seeing them as anything other than criminal. 

What I love the most about some anime’s is their ability to provide audiences with a very well developed back story for main characters. Hero or villain. Through many of these back stories I learn about everything that’s led to the character becoming who they are.  I learn about horrendous challenges, moments of wholesome joy, love, and oftentimes tremendous pain in characters’ childhoods as well. And something interesting happens. While the crimes of villains in anime are not justified, I start to see that they also had potential for good, and there were moments in their fictional lives where they were misunderstood, shunned or terribly hurt by the world around them. For a time, I notice, I can do away with the labels of heroes and villains. I just end up seeing them as human. (Animated humans).

So it’s the magic of this process that’s led me to speak to you all about a concept called compassionate curiosity. Curiosity, meaning having an authentic interest in understanding another person’s viewpoint or backstory. And, compassion meaning that the curiosity is embedded within love or a genuine interest in this person’s wellbeing. 

It is no secret that we live in a polarizing society. If each of us tried hard enough we would very likely find a reason to at some point in time cancel most of our friends, family, loved ones, mentors, celebrity crushes… etc. Not to mention, others could very likely find many reasons to cancel us. I think that for every one person that has thought of me as kind, caring, or thoughtful, there’s probably been at least 10 that have caught me in a moment of much needed growth. So those folks might describe me as inconsiderate, immature, and incredibly ignorant.

In many ways the practice of compassionate curiosity has allowed me to hold on to and mend a lot of relationships over the course of my life.

For much of my childhood, I very actively gave in to labeling people as part of my in group, or out group. I’d see myself as a hero and anyone that disagreed with me or challenged me, a villain. And especially when in the face of conflict, I found myself in a mode of debate rather than dialogue. 

What I mean by this mode of debate is that while someone I would be in conflict with would talk, I was listening for the purpose of crafting my next comment, looking for inconsistencies and things to challenge, rather than listening to them in order to understand a different viewpoint  and learn what led them to say what they said, or do what they did or feel what they felt. I wrote them off as wrong and unworthy of my attention. Villains… Dark Chocolate lovers… While in this mode, I found it difficult to see the validity of anything they said. Especially when it involved holding me accountable for a mistake or character flaw. 

On the other hand, when I actively engage in listening in order to understand others, I notice that my guard and stress levels are down. Because my focus is not on reacting in any particular way. It’s not on disproving anyone’s point. it’s on truly understanding the other person. Even when I am the cause for their hurt and upset, what would typically infuriate me if I was in debate mode, led me toward seeing the humanity and emotion in folks I was listening to. 
 
This did not always mean that all of our problems were solved, and it did not always mean that we ended up agreeing. But, what did often happen, if I felt heard, and the other person felt heard we would both be in a state that made deescalation more likely. The second thing I noticed was that taking genuine interest in understanding others helped me learn so much more about the way I impact spaces and pushed me to address harm I have caused rather than defending my intentions. When I acknowledge my impact, my good intentions end up being more than clear. Me being willing to listen, empathize and acknowledge responsibility made others more willing to reciprocate those same courtesies. And ultimately, I found myself in a better place to problem solve with others. When I disagree with someone but we both demonstrate the desire to be compassionate, non judgmental and curious, our focus is diverted from invalidation to openness, collaboration and there’s a newfound comfort with someone who you might have written off as a villain in your story.

I share this with you all because there’s so much unholiness out in the world. Worse than dark chocolate. So many of these issues cause harm that promote feelings of isolation and disconnect. These feelings are stressful. And an excess of stress hormones kills. I want you all to take opportunities, when you are ready, to allow yourself to see the humanity in others you might have written off. The humanity in others you might have angered or caused discomfort for. And also, the humanity in yourself. Because we all make mistakes, we’re not perfect. Having the courage to be vulnerable in times of conflict is so much more likely to lead to the intimacy and understanding we all need to navigate our world’s issues. 
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