It happened so quickly that it caught me off guard. A student in class stopped me in the middle of what I was saying. In a loud voice, she claimed that certain words came out of my mouth implying something offensive about her. It was something similar to what I said, but not what I actually said — or so I thought. I was perplexed and mentally reviewed my statements. As I apologized and tried to explain, her accusations that I held deep seated prejudice against people like her came at meat at a fast and furious pace. I apologized again for perhaps not being clear about what I was saying. She would have none of it and claimed I refused to take responsibility for what I said. Then she stormed out of the room.
My first instinct was to try to recover the teaching environment. I apologized to the class for any part I played in the disruption and attempted to re-explain what I was trying to convey. As I spoke, another woman spontaneously commented, “I think we understood you the first time. I’m not sure what she heard.”
A couple hours later, I was joined by staff members from the department of academic affairs who were going to attempt to facilitate a mediation process between the student and me. The student and her husband sat across a table with me. Another faculty member sat beside me. The two staff members led the process. It all broke loose again. I was repeatedly called a liar. My colleague was told that she could not be trusted because we are friends. The staff members were told that they were attempting to bury the issue of faculty misconduct. No matter what I said about the illustration I was using, which was taken directly from the course curriculum, or my background related to the topic, the consistent response was that I was a liar and refused to take responsibility for my being fundamentally prejudiced against people like her.
The mediation fell apart. The woman was given an option for course completion that would enable her to avoid working with me. From my perspective, what occurred was that in less than 15 minutes of meeting this woman, I was accused of something and in her mind there was no other way to see it. She could not hear an apology much less consider the possibility that there was some miscommunication between us.
That night, I found it difficult to sleep. It wasn’t so much that I replayed the situation but that I considered the decades of work I’ve done around the specific issue about which the woman accused me of being insensitive. It wasn’t that I wanted any kind of acknowledgement for past work. Instead, I realized how quickly trying to do the right thing and working for social justice can be disregarded by others. It is quite easy for someone to accuse another of being a bigot, of being racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., based on what is perceived in a single moment, a single action, or a single statement.
I realize that I am an older white man with a certain level of privilege in society. Because of that, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that I think white men (or white people) are victims because of the growth and empowerment of “minority groups” in the United States. Yet, I am aware that all too often today people are labeled as racist, sexist, homophobic, or in some other way bigoted based on a single interaction that could have easily been taken out of context. The same is true when referring to a member of some other group to which we don’t belong as lazy, dirty, self-indulgent, or anything else.
I did do something wrong as I tossed and turned that night after this event. Feeling alone and isolated, I allowed myself to wallow in a kind of self-pity. In thinking about things I’ve done in the past, I questioned why I bothered to do anything for anyone. Why not just take care of myself? I rationalized: no one ever appreciates when you go out of your way for them. Why bother? Statements like that ran through my mind throughout the night.
The next morning, I awoke and stumbled to the bathroom. As I washed my face, I could see in the mirror that I looked horrible from the lack of sleep. I paused. I looked at myself closely in the mirror. In a moment, a reaffirmation came to me: I never did the things I’ve done for social justice, individuals or groups, because of wanting credit or respect. I do the things that I do because of my values. It’s important to me to do the right thing, to work for justice, and to make the world a better place. It doesn’t matter what accusations are made of me. What matters is that I do the best I can to live with respect for others, to make a way for others who find life difficult, and to act with respect toward others. It’s important to me.
Do I always live out my ideals? Of course there are times I fail. But the times I’ve failed hasn’t meant that I’ve ever stopped trying to make the world around me a better place for others. Nor should this experience prevent me from living out values I hold dear.
We often think of the Golden Rule as pertaining to our direct interactions with individual people. And it does — but the Golden Rule draws us toward more than that. Treating others as we would have them treat us, not doing to others what we would not want done to us, is a call to root out injustice in society as well as to hold the door open for the person coming behind us. Paying it forward is not just about dropping a coin in a toll booth so the person behind us doesn’t have to pay the toll. It’s also about giving voice to issues that hold others back even when we, ourselves, find a clear way forward. Creating good karma is not limited to allowing another to go in the checkout line in front of us but is also about providing support to people to gain access to what they need for their well-being.
I don’t know what wounded the woman in my class so deeply that she lashed out at me so brutally. In the midst of her inability to hear anything that did not support the position she took, it was clear that I only had one option: to hold her in compassion and to pray for her. We do not know the painful wounds that others carry with them. We know that life does hurt us all. It’s from that realization that we can do our best to avoid anything that could do further harm and to be compassionate when pain is expressed as anger or rage. No matter what this woman has said about me, she remains a human being who is worthy of respect and compassion. It is from that belief that I choose to live my life.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.