As a man who is committed to personal growth, interpersonal healing, and systemic change, I am constantly trying to cultivate a deeper sense of self-awareness. I believe that the only way to truly be of service to others is to know myself deeply and to practice living and acting with integrity.
Walking the path of radical self-awareness means that I am willing to examine my words, actions, and beliefs with a critical yet compassionate eye. Acting with integrity means that I am clear about what I value and that I consistently seek to bring my behavior into deeper alignment with those values.
This requires practicing the courage of acknowledging both my shadows and my light, even as I maintain the humility of recognizing how much I simply don’t know.
Intention vs. Impact
I’ve seen the harm I can cause when I act from a place of ignorance. (I use the term ‘ignorance,’ not as a self-judgment, but in the literal sense of not knowing – which is the Latin root of the word). My good intentions have not always impacted others in the ways that I’ve hoped for. In fact, sometimes they have been received as incredibly hurtful.
One of my deepest fears is the fear of being misunderstood – and nothing feels worse than experiencing the disconnect between a positive intention and a negative impact.
Learning to receive feedback about my impact on other people has been one of the most difficult and rewarding pursuits of my life. And that learning never ends; it only grows deeper. It turns out that the story I tell myself about who I am is often surprisingly different from how others experience me. Rather than allowing this to discourage me or put me on the defensive, I do my best to view it as an opportunity to deepen into self-awareness.
I believe that others serve as mirrors to help us learn what we don’t know (and see what we can’t see) about ourselves.
We can’t move through our ignorance and cultivate radical self-awareness alone. We need other people to help us illuminate the dark corners of our subconscious stories, beliefs, and behaviors. And this requires being willing to listen. And being willing to hear things about ourselves that are sometimes really challenging to hear. There is a lot we can learn by acknowledging our ignorance and choosing to sit with and explore what other people are reflecting back to us about ourselves.
One of the ways that I’ve experienced the impacts of my ignorance most intensely has been in conversations about race, privilege, and oppression. Precisely because these conversations are consistently challenging and difficult, they offer me the opportunity to cultivate radical self-awareness in profound ways that I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere. Let me illustrate this with a story:
Confronting My Privilege
A few years ago, I participated in a group activity called “Cross the Line” in which the facilitator lined everyone up and then preceded to make a series of statements. If the statement was true for us, we were asked to take one step forward. If not, we stayed where we were. In this particular version of the activity, the statements chosen by the facilitator all implied an experience of societal privilege – of various forms, including race, gender, class, etc.
Several examples include:
“I can reasonably assume that my failures will not be attributed to my race, or my gender.” “
I can achieve success without other people being surprised; and without being held to a higher standard.”
“I can go out in public without fear of being harassed or constantly worried about physical safety”
“I understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy food, and can choose to eat healthy food if I wish.”
NOTE: If you are finding yourself questioning my use of the term “privilege,” then I invite you to read this great post that helped me understand the concept better.
So, the facilitator kicked off the activity. And I remember that after each statement, I would take a step forward. After the final statement was read, I realized that I was literally the farthest person from the line, with everyone else behind me. Only a few other White men stood nearly abreast of me, at either side. Behind us were White women and, behind them, were men and women of color from various different ethnic backgrounds. This spread is roughly represented in my sketch below:
A Powerful Metaphor
As our group debriefed the activity, we began to recognize the powerful metaphor we’d just stepped into. The reality was that our experiences in this activity mirrored our experiences in the world. And I learned a lot from viscerally experiencing how I fit into the wide spectrum of different experiences of societal privilege. Let me explain.
For me, standing at the very front and facing forward, all I could see were the other White men. They were the only people whose stories I needed to know about in order to be successful in our society. Behind us, were the White women. They had no choice but to learn about us – the White men – since we were right in front of them. But we didn’t need to see them or understand their stories.
Behind them were the men and women of color. Although they represented a widespread amongst themselves (due to their varying experiences of societal privilege, based on class, gender, education, etc.), they all had to look ahead to the White women and men in the room.
This mirrors the experiences of many people of color in this country who, for example, learn to adopt White ways of speaking and behaving at times in order to succeed (or even survive) in a White-dominated culture. They have no choice but to know about us. And yet we (White folks) haven’t really needed to know anything about them.
One impact of this reality is that we often remain distant, disconnected, and even afraid of one another. As Irene Butter points out, “Enemies are people who’s story you haven’t heard, or who’s face you haven’t seen.”
The fact is that being a White male in our society means that I haven’t really needed to know anyone else’s story, since my experience of the world is the “norm” that everyone else is expected to conform to. Perhaps equally striking has been the realization that, having spent my whole life swimming in Whiteness, I feel as though I haven’t ever even known my own story.
Looking back, I recall that I felt a sense of deep isolation standing out in front of everyone else in the Cross the Line activity. And that, when I first glanced back at all of the people behind me, I felt an intense sense of guilt and sadness. This experience mirrors the inner struggle I’ve faced as I’ve begun confronting my privilege in the world. I’ve realized, over time, that the only way to move through these feelings is to turn around and start witnessing the people standing behind me – to start listening deeply to their stories and experiences.
Listening to these stories, however, has brought up so much sadness, shame, and shock that I’ve struggled to stay present and not look away. My ignorance has ‘protected’ me from the truth of other people’s experiences for so long that it actually hurts to look at it now – like turning on the overhead lights in a dark room – my eyes are still adjusting.
But the more I listen to other people’s stories, the more I learn about myself. And, as I said in the beginning, I believe that the only way I can truly be of service to others is to know myself deeply and to practice acting with integrity.
As a man who is committed to radical self-awareness, I know that leaning in to the most challenging places in my life often yields the most rewarding insights. And, as someone who deeply values principles of justice, freedom, and equality, learning about the impacts and root causes of my privilege is essential to knowing how to live my life with integrity.
As a White man who aspires to stand in solidarity with all people (and especially those who are most marginalized in our society), I take it upon myself to continue to listen, learn and grow in every way that I can, regardless of how challenging or uncomfortable it may be.
Sure, the lights are still bright; but I never want to look away again.
With fierce loving compassion,
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As another man having done this work in the Seattle area for the last 28 years, I’d love to connect with you sometime and perhaps see if you might be interested in co-facilitating or substituting for me in a group I facilitate weekly through the King County Jail. Would enjoy the opportunity to meet and connect with an ally.
Hey Ward, thanks for commenting. Glad you’re doing that important work! Happy to connect: Drop me a line at [email protected]. Thanks~
This was a great read, very thought provoking!