Through The Looking Glass: Growing Pains — Developing Through Discomfort

by Michael Cobb | 5/23/18 2:35am

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Source: Courtesy of Michael Cobb

“We have some bad news for you all. This is never an easy thing for us to do.”

It’s freshman fall. I’m standing on the upper deck of the varsity rowing boathouse, overlooking the Connecticut river.

“Unfortunately, due to NCAA restrictions, we aren’t able to offer the four of you a chance to continue.”

It takes a few seconds for the news to hit. To be fair, my decision to walk onto the varsity rowing team was an impulse more than anything else. I had next to no experience, and my only qualification was the fact that I was a lanky six foot five. Although I hadn’t been sure if I wanted to join the rowing team in the first place, I left the boathouse in a dejected daze.

It’s never easy to be told that you aren’t good enough. Less so when that realization deprives you of something. However, after four years at Dartmouth, I have found reason to be grateful for moments like that one.

I’ve hit quite a few lows at Dartmouth. Some (read: most) were caused by my own stupidity in one way or another. Many weren’t. When I think of my moments of significant personal growth at Dartmouth, however, all were somehow a result of something that put me in an uncomfortable place.

In the case of rowing, left without the support of a team, I was forced to scramble to meet people and build community for myself, instead of within an established structure. This later paid off in a supportive group of friends who shared my values. I gained confidence meeting new people, which didn’t hurt when seriously networking for the first time.

Some low moments went beyond inspiring me to build up a skill, though. Some challenged the core of who I was. If you’ll give me your attention for a minute or two, I’d like to dive into one such experience. Despite the time it took me come to terms with it, I’m still grateful it happened.

It was my off week while studying abroad, and I was touring the country with two women from my FSP. One was another student and the other was a teaching assistant. Despite the trip being relatively short, space was tight enough and contact was constant enough that frustrations couldn’t help but bubble over into conflict.

In retrospect, there were definitely some things I did on that trip that would have annoyed any rational human being (turns out some people have trouble sleeping with phone notifications left on — who knew? Apparently not me). However, the end result was that I became the butt of most of the TA’s jokes on the trip, with the other student forced into the tense position of mediator.

In an uncomfortable twist, a theme of many of these jokes was to put down whatever I was doing at a given moment as a natural consequence of my “white male privilege.” I laughed along at first, but after this TA criticized my roles at the job I held on campus because of my race and gender and created a list of “white male things” I did on the trip, it started to hurt.

I feel like it’s important to pause for a second here because I know a number of readers will have varied responses to my decision to speak about white male privilege. Before I go on, let me add the disclaimer that I know white male privilege is absolutely real. This doesn’t mean I’m always as aware of it as I should be, but I hope the remainder of what I write will clarify how this experience contributed to my understanding of what this privilege means. That said, back to the story.

These comments, made more potent by the power dynamic that existed between her and I, as TA and student, only got worse as I hit the academic grind in the final month of the trip. Normally, I think I would have been able to laugh it off, but the comments caught me as I was in a particularly vulnerable spot. I had just learned of the death of a grandparent and faced a severe case of mono that later put me in the hospital for four days.

Whether it was a “f*** you, Michael” to cut me off as I tried to say something in a group discussion (a common occurrence) or a snarky, unsympathetic remark at the puffy, yellow face that resulted from my mono, each comment led me to grow more resentful. Social anxiety, which I had largely overcome in high school, flared up more than ever before as I began to have nightmares of what could happen the next day.

But this is starting to sound pitiful, and I’m not telling this story so that readers will feel sorry for me. With the advantage of time to process it, I realize this experience challenged me to grow as few others have.

It took me a while to come to terms with it, though. The turning point came when I visited my high school on break, and told the story to one of my teachers, a man who remains one of the wisest people I have ever known.

“Don’t you realize,” he said, “that there are people who experience the same thing you did for no other reason than the way they look?”

“Uh…”

“You’re fortunate. You only experienced that kind of discrimination once. There are people who experience that sort of thing every day. Try to put yourself in their shoes.”

It took a few months for the full meaning of this to sink in.

Although I would never wish such a tumultuous series of interactions on anyone, I realized I could use this experience as a jumping-off point to build more empathy. After all, there are plenty of situations where the power dynamic is set in the other direction. How had I affected people who didn’t feel empowered to speak back? What had I done that might cause such powerful emotions of resentment and frustration in others? And what about the implications on a societal level: what structures and institutions exist that arouse that same discomfort and fear in vulnerable groups of people? In a perverse way, this experience did actually make me more aware of the privilege I carry as a white, upper-middle class male, although probably not in the way the TA intended.

And so, despite the fact that my Dartmouth career is coming to an end, as I look back with less than three short weeks between now and graduation, I can’t help but be grateful for my four years here. Occasionally rough? Yes. Full of tons of interpersonal mistakes and misfires? Absolutely. In fact, if I had a dollar for all the things I wish I could take back, I’d be well on my way to paying off my student loans.

That being said, I’m most grateful for the uncomfortable moments: the moments where I said the wrong thing, the moments where I didn’t know how to react to a new challenge or threat. They have made me stronger. They forced me to grow.

And I can always take that with me.