Steve’s War Story: It’s All Going To Burn

My colleague and I showed up to learn about our research participant’s smart house. In the initial part of the interview, just trying to learn a bit about the family before we learned about the house, the participant (I’ll call him Jon) told me they home-schooled their kids. I was young and naive enough that I didn’t have a clue what other factors that typically signifies. When I asked about why they made that decision, Jon really snarled at me, I think because he was far more interested in showing me his gear than talking about his family, but I just explained that we wanted to learn about him as well. He told me that they didn’t support the school system and their attitude towards alternative lifestyles. That’s when I realized I was in an environment where the values were just really different than my own. Okay, no problem, that’s par for the course for the job. We spent a good long time after that checking out the details of a really incredible smart home system that he had built, cobbled, and coded together. Really incredible. Yet there was a constant theme of monitoring and control, of using the technology to check up on the kids from other rooms. Still, all good information. As we were getting to the reflective part of the interview, wrapping up or nearly so, Jon abruptly changed gears mid-explanation.

Jon: “Of course, none of this really matters because it’s all going to burn.”

Me + Colleague: [Puzzled silence]

Jon: “And now I have a question for you fellas: Have you accepted Christ as your savior?”

In my life in general, this is the sort of question I’m utterly unprepared for. In this interview, I knew it was coming, some part of my body was tense from the discussion of the rationale for home schooling, knowing that I was in a slightly vulnerable situation that was going to emerge at some point. So while I was dreading it all along, perhaps it came as some kind of relief. Watching the video later, I saw the most deadpan version of myself I’d ever seen: “…………Well…..perhaps that’s a question for another time.”

I was stuck, I couldn’t dishonor all the rapport-building and honest curiosity I’d been exhibiting for the past two hours, but now we were trapped. My colleague fell back in helpless reflecting-back, I kept waiting for my opening for the “Well, time to go!” but Jon really wanted to talk to us about what we should be doing and thinking, with respect to Christ. It seems this went on for a very long time, but we finally made it to the doorway. Jon asked us to wait, and went off to get something. We should have made a break for it, but we were too struck by the requirements of politeness in our researcher role. He returned with some bible-related literature and exhorted us – in terms that would make the Glengarry Glen Ross salesmen proud – to follow up. Another eternity (if you will) and we were finally able to step away.

We made it to the car, drove a block and erupted in hysterical, gasping laughter. It was the laughter of relief, the kind of manic giggling you’d get from 10-year-olds who just got away from the angry shopkeeper. We had some choice words about Jon, once we were safe.

The experience was terribly uncomfortable; I could not find a way to follow my own values as a researcher and still protect myself from a conversation that was personally risky (as a Jew, I’ve had my share of proselytizing/Hell/Christ “discussions” and really don’t ever want to have one again). As a researcher, I am interested in and have respect for Jon’s views on his family, his home, education, and the afterlife. But as a person, I just don’t want to have to reveal my own beliefs or defend them, especially in this sort of setting.

This was more than 10 years ago, I wonder how I would handle it now.

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