There’s something that tends to happen an awful lot in advocacy circles (and everywhere, really, but it’s most obvious there) and I was hoping we could talk about it. It tends to go something like this:
Someone, typically a member of a radically disenfranchised community (let’s call them A) says, “Doing X, no matter how well-intended, hurts us and our community.”
Someone else, who is almost never a member of said community but is somehow related to someone who is (let’s call them B) says, “But we do X to HELP you and the community.”
And A says, “Okay, but it’s not actually helpful. In reality, it’s hurtful. Here’s a detailed explanation of why the action in question is hurtful and a map of its consequences as they’ve played out in my life-long experience as a member of this community …”
And B says, “How dare you cast aspersions on my good intentions. I love [my kid / my students / my patients / my third cousin once removed’s kid …] and I would never do anything to hurt them.”
So A says, “What I’m trying to explain is that you ARE hurting them (and, depending on what it is that we’re discussing, quite possibly, by extension, all of us.) I didn’t say that you didn’t care. I said that the action you’re taking is hurtful.”
And B says, “You know nothing about me or who I am,” which seems to make perfect sense to them in the context of the conversation but really, well, doesn’t.
So A says, “This isn’t about you. It’s about the action you’re taking which, purposefully or not, is hurtful.”
And B says, “You have no right to tell me what to do.”
And on it goes.
You get the idea, right?
I watch these conversations happen – and devolve – regularly. And they are as intimately familiar as they are frustrating. Because I spent years being B. Being the one crouched in that defensive stance saying, “But you don’t know me.” Years missing the point.
It took me a while to get that it really, truly wasn’t about me. That being told that something that I said or did was hurtful was not the same as being told that I wasn’t trying, didn’t care, or was simply a crap parent. It just meant exactly what was being said: that something that I was doing was inadvertently hurting someone.
Intention simply wasn’t part of the conversation, nor did it need to be. What I had meant to do or thought I was doing were never the point.
I was being given an opportunity to examine the actual or likely consequences (intended or not) of my actions. That’s a hell of a gift to squander just because it doesn’t come wrapped in a delicately tied, ego-soothing bow.
In a recent conversation on Diary’s Facebook page, I used the following analogy. I think it does a decent job of illustrating all of this.
I love my kid with all my heart. I am a pretty good person. I’d do anything for my kids.
So let’s say that my daughter gets a really, really bad sunburn. I, with all of my good intentions and love for my kid, run out and get a bottle that reads “soothing sunburn spray.”
I run home and spray it on her sunburn and she screams and cries that it’s not soothing at all, that it actually stings like heck and it’s making it worse.
Should I keep spraying and tell her that she’s making me feel really badly because I was only trying to help? Should I insist that it doesn’t really hurt her because it says right there in the bottle that it’s soothing? Should I insist that she stop yelling and accept my loving gesture because that’s what it is?
Or should I put the bottle down and stop doing the thing that she’s telling me is hurting her long before worrying about how the disconnect between my intentions and their consequences make ME feel?
When a member of the community being hurt by what was intended as kindness says, “This hurts us,” shouting, “But it’s meant to be kind!” is not particularly helpful.
This is messy stuff. I know. Intimately, I know. It’s crushing and frustrating and heartbreaking and yes, even angry-making to hear that what we’re doing out of love and concern might actually be making things even harder for the people we love with everything we are and everything we have.
But if we keep allowing our egos to stand in the way of our ears, we’ll just keep inadvertently hurting the very people whom we so desperately want to help.