Is it something that’s just happened to me in my life? The car wreck I was in, or is it that death in the family? Was it experiencing bullying as a child? What makes me special versus someone else’s experience?

These are the questions Steele Kelly, and I have been pondering, especially as Lived Experience seems to be on the verge of emerging as an established professional field. We discussed the meaning of Lived Experience and what about it might make it uniquely qualified to be viewed as a professional specialty.

Steele: Your experience defines your character, and your character is what builds the environment around you. But it also leads to other places.

Susie: Yes! Because often, with lived experience comes some type of passion to help. Many people in these roles are passionate about helping others who may currently or previously have been in that same or even a similar life situation.

I’ve always talked about how you can’t pay for passion. It’s not something that you can hire out for or put on a job application. Yet, that’s kind of what we’re doing now. We’re looking for people who have a unique life view of a particular type of event or experience.

Think about it, we now see Lived Experience listed underneath names on resumes. We’re saying Lived Experience and whatever that particular area might be significantly different from just regular ol’ experience.  ‘Cause I’ve lived through this thing, and this thing taught me something I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

However, at what point is that regular ol’ experience the same or different? Where’s that point between the two that creates the boundary line?

I think that just because someone has a ‘regular ol’ experience’ like going to the store, it doesn’t mean it’s a big experience that quantifies significant change or knowledge. Even if someone goes through a capital LE experience, it doesn’t mean they’re knowledgeable or anywhere close to being an expert in a particular area. They may also still be at a stage in that experience and not removed enough from it to have a fuller perspective or even the advantage of hindsight. So they’ve not yet hit the capital LE stage of living through the experience. They could even be doing things in an unhelpful way, intentionally or not.

At some point, I was removed enough from my suicide-loss experience that I wanted to learn about it deeply. I became educated, and through my passion, I could build up and even create resilience around what happened to me. My Lived Experience furthered my desire to help myself and eventually use it to possibly guide others.

Steele: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. I think that, as you said, there’s a passion, but there’s more than just passion. These experiences create behavioral changes. Sometimes that can be through a singular experience; other times, this may be a culmination of many seemingly normal experiences.

Over time there’s some kind of realization of the truth that comes out. There’s this hidden meaning behind this Lived Experience or even a universal understanding of something still happening in our world. I think of Isaac Newton with gravity. People knew the apple was falling they just didn’t understand that universal truth of gravity. Newton brought light to a common experience because he could see and experience it differently.

I see Lived Experience kind of in that same realm. It starts after the experience by becoming part of a curiosity of the world and a deeply held belief that positive change can happen. Behavioral changes start after your beliefs shift and change in a significant way. That’s why these experiences are so important because they change beliefs and affect things like culture, which are very, very hard to do.

Susie: Absolutely. You and I both know that you can walk into a room and say you know or you understand, and the first thing someone wants to know when you’ve told them that is, ‘have you ever even gone through something like this?’ If you say “no,” they immediately shut you down. They know you don’t ‘get it.’ They don’t want to hear anything you have to say after that point because you don’t know. You don’t understand, and more than that, you probably won’t ever understand.

I could read every book known to man about a particular experience. Still, if I’ve never gone through it myself, I cannot understand the depth of feeling, knowledge, or even the universality that others who have experienced it might know.

Still, even within the regular ol’ experiences, there will be differences that are not universal, right? But there’s shared knowledge. Some sort of thread that ties you to others who have also gone through their own similar experience. For example, if you’re in military culture, there’s a family atmosphere because you’ve gone through something that others simply can’t understand as intimately as you all can. You meet another service member, and immediately, there’s a kinsmanship there. In other spaces, it’s just not the same. If you’re a nurse, you don’t walk up and immediately feel like family with that other person.

I think it’s not only that universal truth like Newton, but there’s a connection there. There’s a depth of connection that you can’t know superficially.

Steele: I think of astronauts. Only so many people have been to space.
I know it sounds absurd; that’s such a specific population. So few people have literally been out of this world, and there’s that shared knowledge of you’re an astronaut. I know you went into space. I immediately come up to hug this guy. We did SOMETHING. That experience is literally out of this world. Pun totally intended.

Susie: When you start looking at this concept, more and more people are getting into spaces where Lived Experience language keeps popping up. Peer support, for one. There’s shared knowledge in that space. That shared experience creates a deep connection almost immediately.

So how do you create value around that so that others who don’t have that shared experience see the worth? Because if you’re a medical doctor, people immediately have this attachment of worth and value there.  You’re knowledgeable, you make a lot of money, and whatever else. Yet, at the end of the day, that doctor may never understand the pain that you’re feeling. When you come in, and a Doctor can also say, ‘I’ve been in this situation,’ that has far more value. Wouldn’t you say? Versus just one who’s gone to school and learned about the condition.

I think there’s there’s an acceptance there as a human being that this is something that’s important. But as a logical human being in a professional world, we really diminish what experience means.

Steele: Maybe that’s because we haven’t created a professional system around it to really value what that means. We haven’t had the language to explain why Lived Experience should be at the table in every professional setting. We haven’t created a monetary system that supports valuing people in a way that supports their lifestyles and futures.

Susie: You should be compensated. Because not only have you gone through this and learned but now we’re asking you to give us input on something that could impact millions, even billions of lives. People should be valued for the expertise gained from their own life. Lived Experience has value. I mean look at peer recovery. Those who do substance use prevention and possibly help one person bring more value to this world than we could ever truly understand.

Steele: I mean how do you, monetarily, how do you put a number on that? It makes sense if you think about our current system. You trade your skills, services, or knowledge for money in order to earn a living. Well, these experiences are a culmination of that very thing. It’s life knowledge. It’s trading your time off that you had to go and learn this skill. You know it’s understandable and it’s a delicate dance.

Susie: People have to first value their selves and what they want to gain from sharing their Life Knowledge but that second part is a discussion for another day.

Steele: A professional standard provides the basis of the value of this type of experience.

What’s the value of a human life?

It’s not even measurable, but you know there are economic pieces that are attached to it. You can calculate what that potential economic impact could have been for a single person. We have financial folks out there that can do that very thing. Yet, we’re not really doing the same thing with our Lived Experiences. We aren’t embedding value around them. Not only is there monetary value in them, but there’s also a moral value and an ethical value. Then there’s just the value of being a human person and being a part of this human experience.

Steele Kelly and Susie [수지] Reynolds Reece

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