A patient calls you a racial slur.

A coworker makes a racially charged statement.

A family member makes a racial joke and anticipates you will laugh with them.

How would you respond to such hurtful comments? Do you respond by confronting them verbally? Do you scold them? Or do you contemplate responding to them in a physical manner? All these thoughts may race through your head, running through your synapses. But what is it that is released by your body? An action or a word? Or do you say nothing and keep such pain within? What is the best course of action of the nurse?

One of the highest tenets of nursing is caring. How do you find it within yourself to care for individuals who verbally express racial hatred? Have you ever utilized self-awareness or mindfulness to combat such behavior? This means being aware of yourself, others, and the environment surrounding you. This also translates into one being keenly mindful of their emotions. Although such behavior may cause feelings of anger or sadness, one can begin to understand the cause of emotions and how one’s outer and inner circumstances triggered the emotion and may lead to the amplification of it.

Instead of going along with an overpowering emotion, we need to seek higher ground from which to look upon that feeling. This does not mean flattening our emotions or being emotionally numb. Brooding exploits one’s previous feelings, only illuminating hatred. On the other hand, analyzing the source objectively allows one to take such energy as they run out before us like ‘scouts,’ simply telling us about the world instead of dictating one’s behavior. Instead, you become like an artist who is keenly aware of their emotions yet can share their emotions through their art. Therefore, life becomes a work of art.

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Arthur Zajonc, author of Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love, talks about great individuals who learned to practice such self-awareness. He explains of Mandela and the Dalai Lama being able to “carry not only their trials but also the burden of those under their care…with grace and lightness that belies the fullness of their heavy hearts…because they discovered the secret of empathetic knowing and equanimity when confronted with suffering.”

Once during a reception, a reporter pressured the Dalai Lama to comment regarding his opinion of those who had killed monks and nuns and destroyed monasteries during an invasion of Tibet. Instead of speaking out in anger he admitted that the loss of Tibetan autonomy was a tragedy. He then spoke of how the loss and suffering of his kinsmen were painful and should be stopped. He concluded that he would do all within his power to regain the self-rule of his nation. The Dalai Lama describes a contemplative exercise where he pictures the suffering of his people at the hand of Chinese offenders but also sought to look at the viewpoint of these Chinese soldiers as they saw themselves. They felt they were liberating the Tibetans from a religious tyrant. They believed the Tibetans to be ignorant in their belief of a god-king, the Dalai Lama. Therefore, he did not view the soldiers as evil despite their actions being violent and hateful. The Dalai Lama did not respond to the reporter without rage but instead provided a lesson in seeing through to the possibility of good in one’s tormentor.

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Likewise, Nelson Mandela, after 20 years of incarceration, did not seek out revenge against those who imprisoned him. Rather, he effaced ethnic strife and Black Nationalism to affirm the humanity in everyone of every color. He did this with the goal of having the white minority have equal opportunity in government, the security, and the rights to land as the oppressed black South African majority. He displayed faith in the whites and blacks of South Africa and did not seek retribution. Rather, he saw the highest in those who oppressed him so that he worked with the government to create laws of inclusion and reconciliation, rather than exclusion and revenge.

Zajonc concludes that “in every situation, there is something worthy of the human being.” The self-aware nurse can acknowledge the negative, but not the negative alone. Therefore, the negative and unjust act is not allowed to blind the nurse who practices self-awareness. That nurse is still able to see the hidden good within each and every individual by upholding the ‘noble dimension’ of the individual who makes a racist comment or act. This is described as displaying faithfulness to the humanity of every individual.

The next time you are confronted with a discriminatory comment or behavior, consider practicing mindfulness. It is an evidence-based practice proven to raise one’s awareness of one’s emotions and sensations in a situation. Experiencing discrimination is associated with increased incidence of depression. However, according to a 2014 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, adults experiencing discrimination who reported high levels of mindfulness had fewer symptoms of depression. Mindfulness is thought to enable individuals to separate experiences from a sense of self-worth.

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A decade of research has found mindfulness to be associated with regulation of emotional responses, reduction of anxiety, increased empathy and perspective-taking, and increased gratitude and well-being. As a result, perhaps we can conquer a similar perception to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. By practicing mindfulness, one can maintain peace of mind and with those who may make unwholesome comments of any nature.

Tamara J. Brown, RN-BC, MSN, PCCN, CNE, CMSRN
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