So, I’m sitting in this relatively un-Cincinnati restaurant – an old Victorian house on the west side of the downtown, which serves food that would be more at home in California, like tofu. I’m there with my new boss of 4 months, Tom, and my new colleague of 2 months, Joan.
We are supposedly there to celebrate our biggest business triumph to date – the very successful presentation, that afternoon, of our strategic plan for the next two years, to the top 15 officers of our corporation. But, instead, we are have an extraordinarily painful conversation, releasing all the pent-up stress of the last two weeks of preparation, plus.
Actually, Tom and Joan are letting me have it for a remark I made in the middle of the presentation, which they both found alienating. For my part, while I was at first baffled and knocked off balance by their heavy upset at me as we debriefed the meeting that afternoon, I have since had time to think about it – as I went for an exhilarating power walk through my lovely, hilly university neighborhood on this glorious Spring day, and I’m ready. I know what I was intending with this remark that went so awry – at least with my two colleagues – and I am intent on presenting my side. I am also more than a little hurt that they were so quick to assume the worst of my intentions – although I also understand that we are very new to each other, and have had little time to develop trust.
So. right now, roughly two hours into this encounter in the restaurant, I have had it. It’s not that I’m losing my temper. I’m actually choosing to express my anger pretty much exactly as I am feeling it. This is not an absolutely new behavior, but relatively new for this historically way-too- nice a guy, and (to me, even as I’m doing it) kind of amazingly direct with these two people.
We are really quite new to each other and, in some real ways, they are about the most important people in my life. We have all moved here from other parts of the country to start this new organization development (or OD) department, focusing on the human side of the business (team development, culture change, etc.). I have only a couple of other friends in this city, and nobody who I see anywhere near as frequently as these two.
I know that they both, theoretically at least, believe in the direct expression of feelings – and Tom and I have even had a couple of conflicts before – but we have no precedent together for this strong an encounter. And this does not seem to be going well. My telling my side of the story is not going down – in fact, it seems to be angering my partners more and more.
So, specifically what I am saying right now, to my two new colleagues and possible friends, in really fairly loud tones, and facial expression and body posture to match, is “Just what the fuck do you want from me? We’ve been over this a lot of times now. I’ve acknowledged in X, Y, and Z ways that I didn’t handle this perfect. But we keep coming back to this. Do you want a fucking apology? Do you want me to throw myself on the fucking floor and beg for forgiveness? Why the hell do you keep coming back to hammering away at John?”
Tom, who is really not very much enjoying this part of the encounter, says, “I can’t talk to you when you are like this.” “Like what?” “This angry.” “I am this angry – and I’m actually pretty glad that I’m showing it instead of stuffing it.” (And, in fact, I knew even in the middle of this that something important was going on for me – that being as direct and real as I was being, even while it felt painful and scary and alone, was a very right thing to be doing.) Tom – “Yes, but not in public.”
The next moment was one of the most important in my so-far 44 years of life. Tom, my new boss, on whom a certain measure of my professional future rests – the only real authority figure I have locally – has just given his verdict, that what I am doing is inappropriate. I have eons of conditioning screaming from my unconscious that I have gone too far.
So I slowly, somewhat dramatically, turn to survey this restaurant, which has now been officially closed, door locked, for over a half an hour. The only other souls in this medium-sized room are our waiter and the cook, eating their own dinner on the far side of the room. And I yell to them, across the expanse of empty restaurant, “Hey, does my being angry offend you guys?” They, somewhat sheepishly, yell back, “No”. “Thanks.”
I knew in the moment that that act of defiance and reality was very big for me. On some intuitive level I really knew that I had crossed a line – had taken a step, for myself, from which there was no turning back. This one time there would be, for me, no regretful post-mortem. I had not been “realistic” in being so confrontive with my boss – I was rather facing my own personal reality and expressing it as if there were no future to protect, only a present to be affirmed and lived.
I had no experience of risk, only clarity. No fear, in that moment, because it had all rolled over into determination and excitement. All my nerve endings were quivering, and I felt completely alive. On some level, I think I knew even then that all the little breakthroughs of my last many years, painful last year, and very painful last few months had just pushed me over the crest of some personal mountain. I was not consciously thinking these words, but I was absolutely living out the motto a good friend had given me years before, “If I die I die, but I will never again be less than who I really am.”
I had known, even during this recent trying period in our relationship, that Tom was a fine man and an excellent consultant – and that our relationship was quite painfully stuck, in ways that had lots of potential for me getting personally hurt. I also knew in my gut, even in the spontaneity of this moment, that this little encounter was not going to help our relationship, at least in the short term. But helping our relationship was not my main priority at that moment.
I needed, I realize looking back, to send a clear signal to my own· unconscious – if not to Tom – that this generally very “nice”, supportive guy would respond in other ways if pushed too far. Expressing anger, yelling at your boss, is not a primary characteristic of integrity work – for some people it would be completely irrelevant. But for me this was a crucial step in taking my own truth seriously.
I did not know at that moment that this personal breakthrough would lead, just four days later, to beginning this book, which had in various forms been bubbling on the back burner of my mind for at least eight years. But it began to write itself, as I completed another power walk on another magnificent spring evening – scribbling madly on the one scrap of paper I had with me, then just trusting that this gift my unconscious was giving me would not be retracted before I reached home and my computer. And so it was not.
You have had the little breakthroughs that lead to this kind of point of no return. You probably have had many of them, maybe almost every day. What you may not have had is a framework that allows you to appreciate and fully grow from them. You may not have known that the impulse to stand up for who you are in the moment, confused and imperfect as that moment may be, represents the song of your soul, calling you back to yourself, to a state of innocence.
Some would believe that innocence is not available to us fallen humans until some future reality. I believe our fall happens moment by moment – as well as the deep pain of losing ourselves – whenever we mistakenly choose to “settle for” security or fitting in or staying in our comfort zone when we have before us the possibility of aliveness, of courage, of exploring new frontiers in how to be ourselves.
This book will give you many windows into different aspects of that humanity we all share. Some chapters may refer to concrete life experiences you do not share, like moving alone to a new city for a new job. But each story will refer to an inner experience that will be familiar or at least possible to you.
If these stories give you some encouragement in the possibilities they portray, some comfort in the humanness we share, some chuckles over the mental predicaments we all tend to get in, then they have done their job. Welcome to my world. I think you will find we are neighbors.