Love & Wisdom

A Painful Lesson Learned

Regardless of circumstances, when hurt happens open your heart to injured parties

By John Jacobsen December 19, 2023

A frozen denture

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Several years ago, I was teaching at the graduate school at the University of Washington. One day, there was a terrible snowstorm. The university closed down, and I was stuck up on the hill where I lived. I was going stir crazy. One of the students wrote to ask how I was holding up. I sent back an email that said, “This is how I feel because of the snow,” and I attached a photograph of a snowman. Around its neck was a noose.

The student reported me to the dean. The whole experience was humiliating and embarrassing, and it was excruciatingly painful to think that others thought I might have racist tendencies. I was reminded of a white friend whose mom was murdered by hanging, and I felt so, so bad for that boy. And then I thought, “How would I have felt if I had sent that snowman picture to that kid?” I would have truly felt horrible. There would have really been no excuse for doing that.

Why was it that I knew not to send that photo to that kid, who was white, but didn’t know not to send it to my students, some of whom were BIPOC?

The experience really got to me, but it also got me thinking. In retrospect, as painful as it was, I think that’s a good thing.

I grew up in a world, or ocean, of systemic white privilege. It’s sometimes hard to see, and sometimes understand, what I haven’t experienced. I was taught to see racism or misogyny or homophobia only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.

I was making a joke. There was no malice in my heart. But how my clumsy actions landed and who they hurt are more important. Intent should be considered — my ineptitude needs understanding, too — but never more than impact. When hurt happens, it is more important to listen to the person who has been injured than the person who caused the pain.

I want to be aware of that. I want to be awake to that. By waking to the hurt, not just hiding in the intent, we can develop empathy, and empathy is critical to better understanding how others are feeling, and hopefully, maybe we can even feel it in ourselves.

Empathy allows us to connect with others on a deeper level and respond compassionately to their needs and emotions. It is the starting point for creating a community, and it’s the impetus for creating the change that we should all want in Seattle and elsewhere. We all need to look deep into our hearts and find the empathy for others that we wish they had for us. We must stay present and find what is important. We need to look inward and embrace the essential struggle to evolve, instead of protecting what is ours by birthright.

And then we need to act. Talk is cheap. Talk is stalling. Talk is protective. Talking and listening and empathizing are first steps, but they alone will not solve the problem. Action will. Let’s shift the spotlight onto real issues, and take the hard steps necessary to make real change.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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