I had before me what I thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with a top-notch counseling team at a renowned cancer treatment hospital for my counseling internship. In reality, I would soon come to understand that I was about to enter a minefield of anti-male bias that would tax me in every way imaginable in the coming 4 months.
I know, I know, there’s no way in America that a white male could experience discrimination in the workplace. It’s impossible. The very idea is comical. That’s what me and my female co-intern thought.
The examples of discrimination I experienced on a near daily basis during the internship were so vast that attempting to cover even the top few examples would consume more white space in this article than I care to waste, since my main reason for writing is to reflect on a particular mindset that helped me survive it. But, I will share a few of the clues that should have turned me away long before I became invested in the position.
My first clue came during the initial interview. I was warned by my would-be supervisor that there had been 4 male interns before me and all of them were “terrible” (he even failed the one just before me). By contrast, he had had multiple times as many female interns over the years, all of which were wonderful.
My second clue came on the first day of my internship when the supervisor sat me and my female co-intern down and explained to us the difference between males and females: females were emotionally in-tune, intelligent, and self-aware, whereas males were emotionally dead, stupid, and in matters of self-awareness wholly inept.
My third clue was about two weeks into the internship when my supervisor gave me a history of the past male therapists in the department. You guessed it, they were all miserable, and he was happy to see them all go (he was the sole remaining male in the group).
These clues should have sent me running. They gave the very clear indication that a male was fighting against a long history of bias with this particular supervisor. To make a very long and tiresome story short, I was about a month into the internship when I was faced the need to either pack my bags and seek higher ground at a different internship site or stay and potentially drown in an unceasing tide of bias, which would mean failing the final course in my program and starting over with a new internship (unpaid) – a prospect that me and my family simply could not afford.
The stakes were fairly high and against the advice of my wife, my university professors, my co-intern, and a number of others who kept up with the drama, I stayed.
This next bit will sound extremely odd to most people who buy into the modern logic that discrimination is an evil which must be fought and defeated wherever it is found. I understand why some take that route. But I decided to stay and not resist the discrimination because I found in it a playground of psycho-spiritual opportunities. Deep down I was pretty sure I could master my supervisor’s bias and, if right, it would be a personal victory in humility endurance, the like of which I had never been tested.
What gave me the most encouragement that I could not only survive but thrive in this environment was from the writings of a saint in the Orthodox Church, St. Symeon the New Theologian.
I’d like to quote a somewhat long passage and insert some commentary along the way. It’s one of those passages that is difficult to remove a piece here and a piece there without sacrificing the integrity and bite of the message, so bear with me.
St. Symeon writes:
“It is one thing to speak humbly, another to think humbly, and humility is one thing while the blossom of humility is another, yet another the latter’s fruit and the beauty of that fruit, and still another the energies which come out from the last. Of these, some are proper to us, and some are not. It is our part to conceive, think, reason, say, and do everything which brings us toward humility. Holy humility, though, and the rest of its characteristics, its charismata together with its energies, are God’s own gift. They do not belong to that which is ours [by nature], so that we may take no pride in them. No one, however, will ever chance to be made worthy of these gifts unless first, like laying down seeds for them, he does everything which is his to do.”
For the Orthodox Christian there is no greater virtue than humility. Without humility one cannot even begin the Christian life, much less attain to love, the pinnacle of the faith. But “holy humility” is not something one either gains or retains without a struggle, and in my immediate circumstance my internship offered a priceless opportunity to experience humility in a way that I could not manufacture on my own.
“It is one thing neither to be stung nor angered by affronts and insults, nor by temptations and trials, and another to be pleased by them.”
This is the part that truly challenged me and continues to enliven me up in ways that few things ever have. How is it possible to not only resist being angered by affronts and insults, but to be “pleased” by them? This sort of ethos transcends what I believed possible in such circumstances. It is a basic message for anyone remotely familiar with the New Testament, but for some reason this phrasing pulled my strings like nothing ever before.
“It is one thing to pray for the people who do such things, and another to love them with all one’s soul as benefactors, and still another to impress on one’s spirit the face of each one of them, and then, with tears of sincere love, to embrace them dispassionately as true friends without the least trace of dislike making its nest in the soul.”
This stuff saved my tail and, God-willing, will continue to for the rest of my life.
The end of the story is that I did indeed survive and learned more during those 4 months with my supervisor than I could have ever learned in a perfectly peaceful environment. Regretfully, I am still very far – a universe away – from arriving at the place St. Symeon teaches is possible for the one who ventures. But, at least the long journey has begun. What I did arrive at was a deep sensitivity for those who endure such things at their place of work, since up to that point I had never experienced them. Being made a pawn in a supervisor’s game of perceptual distortions and predetermined negative outcomes can be absolutely devastating; devastating to one’s emotional, cognitive, physical, and social well-being. However, if one is willing, I believe it is possible to take such things and use them for personal growth that could otherwise never manifest – by allowing such situations to push you into acts of forgiveness, humility, patience, and love that truly are the markings of a saint!
Thanks for reading.