What Are We Fighting For? Part 5: Unintentional Hurt Still Hurts


“What Are We Fighting For?” is a 12-part challenge to take a step back and consider ways we can proverbially build bridges instead of walls in the world’s current climate of hate and division. The way we engage with the people around us on a daily basis, as well as the systems of injustice we might unintentionally be supporting, result in repercussions we may not fully realize. Today, we bring you Part 5 of our 12-part series, What Are We Fighting For?.

First, for your convenience, here is a review of the first four parts of this series in case you missed them:

Part 1: Unity Requires Understanding, Not Agreement

Part 2: We Can Disagree Intelligently Without Insulting Someone

Part 3: We Can Be Right Without Being An @$$

Part 4: There Is No Them

Now, we’re getting personal. So take a deep breath and lay down your armor. If you want a better marriage, more satisfying connections with family members, friends and neighbors, and a world that isn’t growing more polarized by the minute, this is an essential conversation.

I’ll start with a stark realization that was thrust upon me this summer. I had an intense conflict with someone I care about in which I felt completely misunderstood. The conflict had been brewing quietly for a long time, and I kept trying to diffuse the resentment I detected. But no matter how I tried to offer help, patience, and goodwill, I was met with resistance, frustration, skepticism and, eventually, downright anger.

Long story short, I learned that I had unintentionally hurt someone I love when I truly thought I was helping. For some reason, I had fallen for the lie that if I didn’t MEAN to hurt someone, it didn’t count. But, when it comes to our relationships. Everything. Counts.

We all come from an entirely unique set of experiences and realities. We all function the way we function for all kinds of reasons. And the WHY of our behavior matters. But focusing on each others’ intentions are a slippery slope in relationships. There’s so much more to the story than the way we HOPE we’re coming across. Having this self-awareness is becoming increasingly necessary.

It’s so second-nature to judge based on our assumptions about each others’ intent. But changing the atmosphere of hatred and violence in our world can’t happen if we’re unaware of the ways in which we get in our own way. There are three realities we’ve got to understand if we want to change the culture of our homes, communities or world:

  1. We can’t pretend to fully know anyone else’s intentions.

  2. We must face - and own - our intentions if we truly want to build trusting, satisfying relationships..

  3. The hurt we cause unintentionally is still damaging.

The gift of being clairvoyant isn’t nearly as common as one might imagine. The moment we pretend to know someone’s intent is the moment we start careening into territory that escalates conflict. Focusing on others’ intentions leads us to argue about the unknowable and, therefore, deems the conflict unsolvable.

Simple, everyday phrases flow effortlessly from our lips when we don’t like the way someone is functioning. Phrases like:

“You only did that because_____.”

Or, “I’m sure she thinks ___.

On a grander scale, we assume the intent of entire people groups when we use phrases that begin:

“The Liberals are just trying to ...”

“The Conservatives...”

“The LGBTQ population…”

“Black people…”



Assuming to know the intentions of entire people groups, particularly groups of which we are not a part, is never going to result in genuine conection. An atmosphere of hatred is fueled by lumping people into groups and labeling them as if they’re not individuals. Every group is made of individuals with legitimate needs, hopes and fears.

Regardless of anyone’s intentions, generations of pain - in families and in cultural settings all over the world - have been set into motion because of assumptions about others that were not accurate.

Truth is, most of us fall somewhere in-between the extremes when it comes to our motives. Most of us act selfishly sometimes and generously at other times. We might be enlightened in one part of life and completely blinded in another. I’ll admit to years of claiming to take the moral high ground while treating my fellow humans with less dignity than they deserved. It makes me sick to admit that I did that, but I was the product of a mentality that did not value others’ experiences. They didn’t teach tolerance at my school. But everyone deserves a voice… simply because they’re human. I am still learning how to listen better and learn how to learn from others’ perspectives.

Let’s consider examining our own motives with the same scrutiny with which we examine others’.

Let’s learn to deal in facts, and be willing to admit when maybe we’ve not been open (or exposed) to all the facts.

Let’s examine and own up to our misunderstandings of others.

Let’s courageously look at the ways our experiences have influenced our behavior and allow our norms to be challenged.

MOST of the hurt we cause isn’t because we wake up each morning wondering how we might spread festering pain around to others. It just happens when we aren’t paying attention. It’s easy for our version of “normal” to blind us from solutions, connection and healing. But we don’t have to settle for that.

Healing for the atmosphere of hatred and division will only happen when we start paying attention to the ways we are personally contributing to pain, whether one-on-one or collectively. Healing only happens when we’re willing to look deep inside ourselves and stop hiding behind unconscious biases, unexamined motives, unchecked selfishness and unfounded assumptions about others.

Alcoholics Anonymous sets an amazing example of how to do change old patterns through the 12 Step Recovery model. Every step is worth looking at as we consider how to get out of our own way and move toward a better world. But Step 4 is particularly powerful (and hard to do): “a searching and fearless inventory, looking at our behaviors and motivations with unyielding scrutiny, making note of our wrongs.”

Following that moral inventory, Step 5 of AA is about, “Admitting those wrongs to ourselves, God, and another human being.” Being able to accept responsibility for our actions and motives, then admitting them out loud, gives us the ability to operate in new, more helpful ways. It gives us the opportunity to ask for and receive grace and forgiveness. It is important to forgive ourselves and each other for our selfish intentions if we’re ever going to stop fighting and start working toward solutions that propel us forward as a better civilization.

Failing to acknowledge our assumptions does not serve the people we love, or the world around us, and it doesn’t serve us well either. It is initially uncomfortable to face ourselves and to look at hurt we have caused. But that slight discomfort cannot be compared to the payoff. There is immense comfort in the truth. But so many people never learn that.

Corruption, at any level, begins when we choose to ignore the the ramifications of our choices. If we fail to let the truth propel us toward growth and healing, we throw fuel on the fire of discord, hatred, pain and oppression. Our kids, our significant others, our coworkers and the world NEED us to live courageously and admit when we have hurt each other.

The world needs our authenticity so much more than perceived perfection. Our fellow humans need to us to accept responsibility for hurt we cause, even if we didn’t mean to. Change can begin with seemingly small choices, like asking questions instead of making assumptions, apologizing for pain we’ve caused unintentionally, and learning how to better engage with those whose perspectives we don’t understand.

Loving better means fighting for our own best selves instead of against each other. It means fighting our ignorance, changing our default mode, and dropping the assumptions we’ve made about each other. Loving better means realizing that our actions and words have ramifications that go far beyond our realization. Our voices and interactions have incredible power. Let’s use that power to propel us toward the greater good, one intentional choice at a time.

Emily SutherlandComment