It is easy to go through life not really thinking about who I am, and what I am doing with the moment, with the task at han d, even with the day’s list of things to get done. On a good day, it may even mean tackling some long term project, the ones you contemplate on New Year’s Day, or your birthday, or at the end of a good session at lunch with an old friend.
If I’m in a meeting, I’m usually focused on the agenda item, trying to organize my thoughts on the subject at hand in a somewhat cohesive, intelligent manner, and get those few points across with some degree of skill, articulation, and maybe even be a convincing conduit for my especially brilliant and insightful ideas of the hour.
And if I’m having a conversation, I still find myself focusing on the next sentence out of my mouth, or plotting how to wind this encounter down so I can go on to the next, and more pressing, event of the day.
In those moments, I all too easily pass right by the most important thing of the moment, being present, being real with the person I am with. Maybe if I really listen to them, with my full attention, my full strength brain power, and my full level of listening, seeing, and sensing tools, I might even figure out what they are trying to communicate with me.
Active listening, being engaged, being present --- all those phrases are used as a way of telling this stubborn, bull headed guy that I need to be in the here and now for this conversation. Not off in my little dreamworld of figuring out my brilliant moves for the next meeting, or how I can balance all of my day’s projects so that at least something gets accomplished. Or, how I can finesse that song in my head, or that poem that has been running around in my head the last day, one quarter of the way finished and not yet scratched out on paper.
The list of distractions goes on and on, and I find myself jarred awake once in a while. Now, where am I? What is this person, right in front of me, saying? Really saying.
Yesterday, I’m listening to a guy tell me about how he’s planning to take care of a little bit of business with me. He just needs a bit more time, and he reminds me of our agreement to cut him some slack. Well, he’s here, and he’s asking for more time, and he’s not late, so its not a big deal with me. Sure, more time. That’s fine. You checked in, and that’s all that I really am requiring in all of this. You’re being responsible and you are letting me know. Fine. We can be done now.
At least that’s what I’m thinking, what’s on my agenda. My mind is on something else, something “more important”.
And, I catch myself. Oh, this guy’s wound up pretty tight today, he seems stressed. Maybe, just maybe, this conversation is just the tip of the iceberg for this guy. He seems about ready to pop wide open, the tension in his shoulders is huge, he’s even a little sweaty, an odd state of being for what seems like a routine little business transaction here.
“How are you doing? How are things going?” I ask, actually taking the time to look into his eyes, making contact, and trying to haul up the invisible, indifferent shield I’ve apparently brought to this little conversation in the hall. My gut is telling me to pull off my business transaction face and replace it with my kind, sensitive, listening mode. I do have that mode, but it often gets stuffed in the sack of “I’ll get to that later, once I get my business done” tumble of personas, the ones I keep stashed away under my desk.
So, I listen to my gut, I look him in the eye, and I ask him a question that begs a response deeper than how he’s going to pay his account.
He looks back, right at me, right into my eyes. There’s a spark between us, a connection. His brain throws a switch, and, suddenly, the dam bursts. Literally bursts. He gasps, chokes a bit, and a flood of tears runs down his face. He gasps for air, and sucks in a big lungful of stale office air, letting a big sigh rush out of his mouth, getting in the way of his telling of his first child’s birth this week, his imminent move to a bigger, nicer apartment, his wife’s health after the birth, how his job is going well, and, that life is pretty amazing and exciting right now, and he’s really happy.
And, I look at him, really look at him, eye to eye, and take all that in. Really take it in. All of this is everything in his heart now, and the imminent explosion a moment ago has taken a back seat to this big gust of emotion and zeal. I grab his shoulders, which are now slowly moving down from their position of nearly touching his ears, and pull him against me, my arms wrapping around him, pulling him next to me, so that he can sob loudly on my shoulders, his tears soaking into my shirt, his chest hard against me, still gasping for breath.
His words fall silent for a bit, replaced by the sounds of his gasps, and the mixture of tears and nervous sweat now soaking my shirt. My hands, gripping his back, feel the tension of his muscles slowly unwind, his breaths now coming longer, more regular.
I tell him he’s doing great, he’s a good dad, a hard worker, a good husband.
I thought this would calm him down another notch, and dry up his tears a bit. After all, becoming a father is a really big event in a guy’s life, and he seemed to have a need to have another guy celebrate that with him a bit. He didn’t offer me a cigar, so me giving him a hug and saying “atta boy” would have to do.
But, all of my intentions just turned on the spigot again. He sobbed even harder, and gasped even deeper, and I gripped him even harder, as he shook against me. I thought he was going to fall down, his legs turning to jelly and his whole body shaking and turning nearly limp in my arms.
He was beyond words, so I moved my face closer to his ear, and whispered my sentence of recognition and encouragement to him again, softer. He cried harder. So, I just held him there, me providing all the stand up power we two men could muster together in the hallway.
After a few minutes, he sputtered out that he was sorry, that he hadn’t meant to cry, hadn’t meant to break down. He hadn’t come here for this. Well, sure he did. He needed to cry, he needed someone to recognize that he’s been doing well for himself, well for his family, especially this week.
I asked him, has anyone ever told you you’re doing well, that you are being a successful man now?
He looked at me, dumbstruck. Well, obviously not, I thought.
“My wife, well, she’s told me, but I guess I haven’t really believed her,” he said.
Its true, I replied. You are a great man, a successful man. You have a good family, you have a baby girl, you have a good job, you are good at your job, you are moving into a better home. You are here, taking care of business. You are being responsible.
The words kept coming at him, and he couldn’t dodge them. He couldn’t escape from me. I’d gotten his arms pinned down to his side, and I had him in a bear hug, and he was crying his eyes out on my shoulder, out in the hallway in front of God and, yikes, other men. I could feel him jerk a bit, wanting to run and hide, but part of him wasn’t letting go of me, and his arms wrapped around me, putting me in the same kind of bear hug I’d gripped him with. He was soaking it all up, just like my shirt was soaking up his tears.
He laughed a bit, his grip easing on my back, and he was breathing normally again. The last of his tears ran down his cheeks, and he blinked, hard, so he could look me straight in the eye again, and talk to me, heart to heart, man to man.
“Thanks,” he said. “I guess I needed that. No guy has ever told me that before, and its hard to believe that about me.”
“Oh, but its true, and we both know that,” I said. “You are a good man.”
He blushed a bit, color rising in his still wet cheeks. He wiped the tears away with the sleeve of his work shirt, a bit of the sawdust from the mill smeared now in his moustache.
It was time for him to go. He didn’t know what to say next, and neither did I. The tears, and the hugs had said it all, really. He turned to leave, needing some time to sort all of this out.
“Take care, dad,” I said, as he headed for the stairs. “Go home and hug your wife.”
He grinned, and chuckled a bit, off to kiss the mother of his new little daughter. And I turned back to where my desk was, and the pile of projects waiting there, hoping I wouldn’t find myself drifting off in thought, and not living in the moment, not being fully present when the next guy came by.
Neal Lemery, 2/9/2011