I remember staring down at scuffed gray linoleum floor, slumped against the flimsy wall of the work bathroom stall, and crying my heart out. More than anything, I cried for shame. I felt my own privilege like original sin, something I had never consciously chosen that nonetheless lived in me. And now it was out there, and I couldn’t believe how ugly it was, this thing that had been inside me all along, like how I might feel about watching my guts literally spill out of me.
I had said something insensitive to a coworker – not out of meanness, simply ignorance. I’d misremembered the country in which she was born, out of which I later learned she had been carried as a small child, a refugee too tiny to walk. I might as well have said, I know you’re one of those people, they’re pretty much all the same, right?
She corrected me, her voice a little bitter, but mostly very resigned. And instinctively, like flinching, I tried to cover up what I’d said. “Oh, I’m sorry! I knew that! I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings…”
And then it hit me, the tiredness I’d heard in her automatic response. She’d heard this many times before. She knew I didn’t mean it, but that didn’t matter. My comment showed, more than anything else, that I wasn’t thinking. I had never thought about the place she came from. I had never had to think about it. I’d have been utterly shocked to discover she knew nothing about my home state, but I realized her entire home country was a blank in my mind.
And it dawned on me that that was the definition of privilege. The privilege of not knowing, not caring, not needing to understand the things that shape, often painfully, another person’s life. The ability to leave them blank in my mind. The ability to hide that fact for years until I slipped and made a careless remark. The ability to get away with it.
She kept working, but I fled to the bathroom to cry. The patterned floor blurred under me and I wept for her, subjected daily to a river of ignorant, callous remarks like mine. And I wept for myself, for the depth of my ignorance and apathy and wretchedness. Because I hadn’t meant to hurt her, but I did. Unknown even to myself, I was part of the problem.
I confessed my sins on that bathroom floor and I felt it more than anything I’d ever mumbled in a church. And I all but heard the voice of God saying to me: Let me mold you through this. You have to change, and I can help you.
I felt the significance of the moment, of actually realizing I had something to learn from my pain even in the thick of it.
But then I did two things wrong.
First, I went back to my coworker and apologized through all my snot and sobs. I told her, once more, that I had meant no offense. She hugged me, expressed concern over the disproportionate drama of my reaction, tried to laugh it off. I realized belatedly that this tearful apology came from a selfish place. I was trying to get her to say it was all okay by upstaging the hurt she felt.
I went back to my desk and finished the workday, and then I did something even worse.
I put it out of my mind. The pressure of the moment over, I forgot my sin against my coworker that had so broken my heart. I let myself slip back to the old way of thinking, where my worldview was the normal one and anything else was weird. I didn’t hold on to that tension, that discomfort, that could have moved me to active compassion. I hardened my heart to the voice of God.
I know it’s not too late. There will be many moments in my life when I see myself clearly and can accept the divine invitation to change. Looking back, I’m grateful for that moment on the bathroom floor when I realized what ugliness I held inside and how little I usually cared about it. I treasure the memory of those tears, and I treasure the voice that still sometimes tells me, So you just looked inside yourself and felt terrible? Stay with the feeling. Keep your heart open to the pain others feel, keep your ears open to the words you’d rather not hear. I can give you the strength to change, and you can be part of my renewed world.
“The kind of sorrow God wants makes people change their hearts and lives. This leads to salvation, and you cannot be sorry for that.” 2 Corinthians 7:10a, New Century Version