This past weekend, I attended a two day Academy with the company Eric worked with, and met people he knew. This is the first month I have felt ready to be at an event where everything and everyone would remind me of Eric. (Eric passed away last March.)
The event was held at the Indianapolis Convention Center, a massive facility with hallways as wide as a river.
On one of the meal breaks, walking in that wide river of humans, I ended up in conversation with a tall, handsome, well-educated African American man in his late sixties, early 70’s. He’s an insurance agent for a University and offers coverage to incoming professors and other University personnel new to the area.
Things started off fine.
But then he began to tell the story of his superiority. The story of how right he is, how much more intelligent he is than the people he serves.
At one point, I reeled from the disdain he expressed for one new employee in particular, a researcher, because that person was “too stupid” to see a “wiser and smarter” point of view.
My breathing changed during the disdain story. I noticed that my reaction felt oddly familiar, a throwback response from long ago.
The man walking next to me reminded me exactly, precisely, to the letter… of someone… who could that be…?
I’D RATHER BE CLUCKING.
My father used to tell stories at the dinner table about his conversations with other farmers, and bent those stories in the direction of how much smarter he was than the other farmer.
The punchline was essentially along the lines of how my father “showed him.”
These dinner lectures made me want to run from the table and eat my meal with the chickens, who would only coo and cluck, or peck the ground. I always enjoyed chickens. They seemed peaceful and reasonable to me, and reassuring. I liked the soft sounds they made.
NOWHERE TO RUN. NOWHERE TO HIDE.
For me, actual discussions with my father seemed impossible — no opportunity for participation, nothing to do but listen. My mother and the six of us kids sat politely while consuming our meal and listening to him.
We usually ate mashed potatoes and hamburger gravy or beef liver and onions. There was always a vegetable side, too, such as beets, sweet corn or peas from our garden.
(I cannot tell you how many skillets of gravy or liver and onions I’ve made in my life or how many potatoes I’ve mashed.)
As I grew older, I got up the nerve to try to sway things at the table. I tried to speak another point of view, open things up, throw open the windows and let the sunshine in.
It never seemed to work.
I wanted desperately to have a real conversation with my father, the kind where something unknown or unrealized got discovered. That was my thing.
But it didn’t happen.
I couldn’t make it happen, so I studied my mother for hints. But I noticed she couldn’t make it happen, either.
After meals, as the oldest daughter and cook, I usually headed straight for the kitchen to get the dishes done. I remember once hiding behind my hair, and weeping as quietly as possible in complete desperation while scrubbing pots and pans.
I was frustrated that I was unable to loosen the wrench on my mind and heart while he spoke. I thought I should be able to stay open, kind, and resourceful. But I couldn’t.
Nope, I got hot-headed instead. And then became upset with myself for being angry at him. After all, I couldn’t even do what I expected him to do.
Each time, I vowed to do better in the future.
I wanted to exchange ideas with my Dad. I wanted to have enlightening chats with him, and experience intellectual, spiritual kinship with him. Feel close to him.
But talks (at the table or otherwise) seemed to be one way conversations no matter what I did. I dreaded them.
With that, back to this man at the Convention Center.
WALKING. TALKING. TENSION RISING.
There I was, walking and talking, and the more he spoke, the more I noticed my heart and mind do what it used to do around my father. I also felt a powerful urge to vanish, simply disappear in the crowd (which would have been a snap given that 5,000 people were walking back to the main event).
At first, I could not come to my senses around this man. I didn’t feel like myself. For the first few minutes, I couldn’t think or even notice in real time what I was feeling.
I became the 12 yr. old back on the farm.
I walked with this man. And listened, just like with my father at the table.
But there was one powerful difference.
I was paying attention to my reaction more than I was paying attention to him. I didn’t change anything at all about how I felt, or what I thought. I didn’t even try.
Instead, I stepped three paces back and became the watcher of this scene.
This is where things can begin to change, if you want them to. To change anything, move from being in the reaction, to being the Observer of it. Yes, this takes practice, but it gives the ability to have the emotion, not be the emotion (act it out, be a puppet to it). It gives you the ability to see what’s really going on so you can heal it.
That’s a powerful position.
As we entered the doors to the main event, we said a polite goodbye and went our separate ways.
WHAT DID THIS MAN SHOW ME?
This morning I woke up in deep appreciation of this perfect stranger, who looked nothing like my father. In fact, he looked the total opposite of my father in every possible way.
And yet, he gave me a gift I’ll never forget.
(I love the timing of things. I love how things we need show up in unexpected ways.)
What did this man show me?
He showed me where I have a little work to do.
He reminded me of something I teach (and something I practice myself). When you’re upset with someone, there’s your work.
Apparently, there are leftovers from my childhood dinner table.
After all this time, the experience with my father still lives and breathes in me. It’s humbling, surprising, and most interesting to me that after all the learning I’ve done, this man unearthed an old stash of emotions and reactions in me.
He threw open the windows and let the sunshine in.
What a kind gesture from this stranger. During a seven minute walk, he showed me where my work is.
I’m fully aware that I am ineffective with those for whom I have no compassion. And no, I could not muster compassion for this man, only a reaction. There’s my work.
I’ve done consulting sessions with plenty of men during the past twenty years. The strong reaction I had to this man in Indianapolis didn’t come up in those sessions. Apparently, my clients didn’t remind me of my father.
But this tall, dark stranger was a perfect match to the farmer who raised me, and I am so thankful he struck up a conversation with me on the way to the meeting. Now I have the chance to consciously work through my reaction.
I can unravel it.
My ability to help others increased exponentially because of this man.
If you think about it, my father is the reason I sought a career that involved understanding people. All people. I love what I do.
That’s a pretty big gift.
I also have my father to thank for my dinner table traditions while my daughter MacKenzie was growing up. Yes, my own traditions were quite different than those familiar to me as a child.
MacKenzie and friends led dinner conversation, every meal, every time.
When MacKenzie was young, I was a single mother, so the dinner table was all mine and frankly, I enjoyed that. It was a healing experience for me and I hope it helped my daughter. She seemed to enjoy center stage and took full advantage of expressing herself.
By encouraging Mac to speak up and speak out, I learned so much about what was important to her, how she thought about the world, what she struggled with, and what happened in school that day.
Listening is the most important thing a parent can do.
P.S. If you’re a mother or father and you listen to your children, thank you. If you’re a grandparent, friend, Auntie or casual acquaintance, and you listen, thank you. Nothing has more impact. Nothing is more important.Continue Reading