INTRODUCTION: Good-ish People
The three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, "I was wrong."
—Sydney J. Harris
On Sunday, June 12, 2016, Rachel Hurnyak woke in her Bay Area home to horrific overnight news from Orlando, Florida. As bartenders at a popular gay nightclub shouted "Last call," a man had walked in with multiple firearms. He killed forty-nine people and injured fifty-three others.
Rachel was shocked, and as someone who self-identifies as queer, she was terrified. She knew it could have been her—or anyone in her community. Rachel was once my student, and when I heard the news, I had the same thought.
As Rachel thought about going into work the next day at a Bay Area technology company, she knew her stress level was dangerously high. It was not the good kind of stress that makes employees more focused, motivated, and creative. She was grieving. The Grief Index study captures data from more than twenty-five thousand people collected over several decades. The study reports that, at any given moment, approximately one in four American workers is experiencing grief.
Rachel was feeling "hidden grief," which specialists say emerges from negative events and relationships outside of work, such as family deaths or illnesses or national tragedies. Hidden grief costs U.S. companies as much as $75.1 billion in lost productivity per year due to employees who have difficulty concentrating, make errors in judgment, and experience accidents. Sometimes, the source of the hidden grief, such as the death of a family member, is relatively straightforward and easy to share, but hidden grief can also be more complex and difficult to share with others.
Unable to sleep that night, Rachel decided to make her hidden grief visible to the world. She blogged, "This week and beyond will be difficult for your LGBTQ and/or Muslim colleagues . . . one community grieves because our members were killed in one of the first safe places we ever knew. The second community grieves because they're being blamed for those killings."
Much as she loved her job and her colleagues, Rachel was dreading being at work the next morning. It was just going to make things harder, even though work colleagues are a critical component of many people's support systems. In Rachel's case, most of her straight colleagues were good, well-intentioned people who would seek to comfort her. They might call themselves allies.
I imagined myself as one of those colleagues reaching out to Rachel that Monday morning, filled with sympathy and outrage, overflowing with good intentions. We might mention our donations to The Trevor Project or the Human Rights Campaign. We might fill her in on the minutiae of each breaking news story about the shooter. We might tell her about a gay family member or college friend or former colleague. We might recall Matthew Shepard, or Tyler Clementi, or another victim of a terrible hate crime. Our eyes would well with tears.
Yet, instead of finding comfort in such good intentions, Rachel was filled with dread. This surprised me. She is one of the most appreciative people I know, the type who makes you feel heroic for the smallest of kind acts. Clearly, I was missing something.
"What they are saying is more for them than me," Rachel says. "You go to a lot of funerals when you're a pastor's kid and you hear the same conversations every time. It is almost a competition to see who was the most relevant. 'Well, I saw Jim on Tuesday at the store and he looked okay.' Or, 'I saw him the following morning and he didn't look okay.' Meanwhile, Jim's family is sitting alone in the corner. We make it about ourselves."
Rachel feared that she would need to set aside her grief to make room for her colleagues' emotions. Their grief—my grief—would be genuine. Her colleagues and I cared about her well-being and we wanted something as well: We had an urgent desire for her to see our grief. We saw ourselves as the good ones, as believers on the right side of history. We needed her to validate us. At some unconscious level, we craved affirmation that we were good people, and that she knew it.