December 11, 2011
Rise And Soul
Sometimes those around us–our boss, friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers–deliver their words and actions in a kind and loving package, and at other times, they seem to arrive in a critical one. Receiving the kind and loving package is generally not a big problem for us, even if we are unable to fully take it in. However, a critical package seems to change the game. Upon receipt, we struggle with accepting it. We defend ourselves, if only in our thoughts, by justifying our actions, explaining, or dismissing the words and actions of the other. We may even experience our defense as withdrawal, retreating in despair to keep the critical package at bay. We’re often left detached and deflated, irritated, angered, unsupported, hopeless, or otherwise confused. But what if there were another way?
Over the recent thanksgiving holiday, I decided to call a friend to wish him well and see what his plans were for the day, but was unable to reach him. Later, as I was settling into my workout at the local gym, I saw an incoming call. It was him. My ringer was off to avoid disturbing anyone, and aware of the no cell phone policy on the workout floor, I strongly considered hitting the “decline” button. But I felt the urge to speak with him, so I decided to answer. Stepping away from the line of cardio machines and moving toward the rear of the gym, I began talking in a soft voice. As the conversation continued, I noticed my volume getting louder, but nevertheless thought I was out of earshot of those working out nearby. I quickly discovered that I was wrong.
Startled out of what had become a livelier phone conversation than I had first imagined, I heard an aggravated voice yelling back to me about the no phone policy and asking me to take the call outside. It was a gentleman about ten feet away on the cardio machine next to the one I had stepped away from. I noticed feeling bad for disturbing him, thinking that I knew of the “no phone” rule and had proceeded to break it anyway. But I also noticed a quick and even stronger well up of defensive thoughts, “how could he really hear me when he had headphones on”, “did he have to say it so aggressively”, “there are televisions and music playing in the gym, was I really that loud”. Then anger and irritation set in. Focusing blame on this man was paradoxical given the circumstances, but also predictable. In my experience, defensive thinking had always fueled a storm of negative emotions and given rise to conflict with someone or something outside myself. But without my belief in the defense, how would it survive?
Aware that turning this around was in my hands, I opted to withdraw my support from the string of defenses. It was never my intent to disturb anyone, and this man’s call out to me was simply a call back to that reality. As can often be the case with critical words, he was giving me the very instruction I needed to recall my own intentions. Now I would not disturb anyone else with my conversation. Knowing that, I felt grateful and supported by him. I also felt more assured, confident, and safe–the defenses that had been mounting were troublesome, giving way to internal turbulence and instability as well as holding the strong possibility of projecting outwardly into my actions and responses.
As I stepped back on the cardio machine to workout, the man leaned over to apologize for delivering the message in the way he did, but at this point I could only thank him for bringing it to my awareness. I felt connected to him. Without defense and resistance, a space opened in our interaction where it was possible to accept his words (both the critical and the apologetic) and to appreciate him. After I finished my workout, I was surprised to see him come over a second time to apologize. It was his view that he didn’t have to deliver the message so harshly. I didn’t hold this view myself, as it was impossible to hold without a defense. But it seemed that he too now had the space to consider his actions as I did, a space that could not exist in the presence of defense.
This chance interaction with a stranger left me wondering what would happen if we dropped our defenses with those maintaining a more consistent presence in our lives–our bosses, coworkers, family, and friends. Think of the possibilities, someone tells you that you don’t listen enough, you don’t value their ideas, you’re being difficult and stubborn, you made a mistake–wouldn’t those criticisms simply be a call back to your intentions to not conduct yourself in that way? For that reminder, isn’t the only appropriate response, “Thank You”. The latter seems more valuable than making a defense for whether you were or were not doing what you’re being criticized for. Defense creates an automatic distance, but if we simply drop it, imagine the appreciation and connection that’s possible. I enjoy seeing that man from my gym now, it’s even a more intimate encounter than before–we have shared a moment together. It brings a smile to my face and I notice a gratitude for his presence.