Intent and Impact: The Resilience to Love More Fully
Imagine that you are just moving around in your kitchen and you turn and step on someone’s toe. “Ouch! Ow, ow, ow!” they say.
What is your response?
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you OK? How can I help?”
Or is it “I didn’t know you were standing there.”
Or “You shouldn’t be standing so close to me.”
In the very simple example given here, your intent is not to step on the person’s toe, yet your impact is painful for that one standing close to you.
Two parts of an interaction.
I have learned the hard way through relationship pain that these two indeed are related, but still distinct and that tracking both matters. It has been hard for me, I think, because I have too often wanted to focus on my intent too quickly. It is a common mistake for the initiator/sender to focus on their intent (“I didn’t mean to…”) while the other person is experiencing pain and could benefit from timely care. Explanation or, at worst, defense or attack (“You shouldn’t be standing there!”) do not help the person in pain. It often makes the pain worse.
Life and its interactions are often more complex than the example given, yet the principles remain: intent and impact.
Many of those who care about racial equity and have studied racism would say the same. In her book, White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, Robin DiAngelo talks about how the most daily damage to people of color actually comes from white progressives because, in significant part, they claim that they didn’t intend racism. Progressives too often think they have got it and that racism consists of individual, conscious acts and bad actors (like those marching in Charlottesville or somewhere or some-when else).
Given what we know from history, from histories hidden and neglected, and from the research on implicit bias, what if we changed the sample interaction to someone wearing boots (systemic power) and a blindfold in the kitchen (unconscious bias) who then steps on the toe of someone with no shoes on (lack of systemic power) and a history of profound toe injuries (historical context). The person stepping on the toe would still be able to say “I didn’t mean it” or even “You shouldn’t be standing there” and yet the pain would be profound and the would not be receiving care for the injury. Proclaiming innocence of intent gets in the way of helping the injured.
In Ephesians, the author (likely a disciple of Paul) says,
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
The biblical language suggests an intimate wrestling in this struggle. I include my own unconscious in that intimacy. In my spiritual life, I consider the call of Christ to include looking within to what I don’t see (blindfold) in myself and my culture (white culture) for all that gets in the way of loving more fully.
DiAngelo’s book beautifully challenges me, as a white person of faith, to be more resilient when I hear the pain of people of color so that I just don’t go to my conscious intent (“I didn’t mean it” “I’m not racist”).
Instead I sense a call to go to focus on the person impacted and their expereince, to look at how I am moving in the world and where the others are standing. What pain might the person of color be experiencing (historical context)? What am I unconscious of here (blindfold)? What power is being exerted (boots)?