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VOICES: Is life a series of Post-It notes?


By Tom Synan

I was in a group discussing trauma when a person brought up their trauma and encounters with police. They pointed out I was in uniform, had bad experiences with the police and how upsetting it was for them to see me in uniform. 

I thought, they don’t know me, how do they know I am bad?

Then, someone else began defending me, sharing how their experience with the police was so positive and I should be defended. 

I thought, well they don’t know me. How do they know I am good?

I listened as it developed from opinion-to-debate-argument. The group split in two, taking a side between good and bad. Yet no one asked me about me. 

Why did I become a police officer? What was my experience? What were my own struggles that led me to being a police officer?

It can be challenging as a police officer to reconcile your personal identity, separate from the uniform, since it can have its own. What do I represent and what is my ‘why”? 

I then began to think about our identities as a series of Post-It notes we stick on each other.

My uniform is littered with Post-It notes society places on it — projections of their experiences, beliefs, and opinions. When I take off my uniform and peel off the “notes,” they read hero-villain; rescuer-oppressor; righteous-sinner.

Every day, I layer the pieces one on top of another, but not clicked together because I now must maneuver in a world that expects me to understand another person, community, culture, race, or religion. Each interaction is an unsynchronized dance only coming together to once again place Post-It notes upon each other.

As a society, each of us carry notes we might stick on someone, a way to validate our opinion, belief or experience. 

During that discussion, I realized that we are all trying so hard to be seen, heard, and accepted, we place notes on another in hopes they take it off, and acknowledge our identities. The notes are about how the other person wants to be seen. 

All of us are covered in so many “notes” it can be difficult to know where we begin — let alone understand where someone else is coming from.

I was asked, why didn’t I defend myself? I’ve learned, I can accept the experience of another, without it defining who I am. That is what the notes are all about. Just accept me, my life, my experience. 

No need to take it from me: Just read my note and try to understand.

It is a reasonable request. Take a moment to read my note. But before we can do that we must be careful what notes we place upon ourselves…..what we write on them and how often we read them. 

To understand someone else we must make sure the notes we stick upon ourselves are true, not just what we believe. At times, we must erase the notes we wrote about ourselves and replace it with as much compassion, understanding, and empathy we should give to another.

The notes we stack on another are often just projections of who we wish to be, how we wish to be seen, how we wish to be accepted. If we started there, we would be much more careful about the notes we stick to others.  

The next day I put my uniform on and walk out the door. I have found a way to glue the pieces together, with one note I stick upon myself —all that is needed for me to walk along any community, culture, or person. 

One note brings me back to understanding that humanity is complicated. We all go through life just wanting to be seen, to be accepted as we are, and to be what we always hoped to be. This Post-It note is the first and last I read each day.

I see you because I can see me. 

Tom Synan Jr. is the chief of the police for the Village of Newtown, in Hamilton County, Ohio. In 2015, he helped form the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, now the Hamilton County Addiction Response Coalition. In 2017, he testified at a Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on the impact that synthetic opiates have had on the country. His career and work with the opiate epidemic has been recorded and archived in the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C.

He is the host of the Hard Corners, with Tom Synan podcast.

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