Dark Tunnels… to Fields of Grass

I am so weak…

I didn’t want to go to Brazil. I don’t like flying. And I hate giving speeches. I wanted to stay home and spend the holiday week with my family.

That’s what I told myself. So two weeks before the conference I called the event sponsor.

“I’m not sure I can make it,” I said. “I’ve got some health issues,” I lied.

“That would be very bad,” she said. “More than three hundred people registered. They paid to hear you speak.”

“Surely there are other speakers.”

“But you are the one they’re coming to hear.”

“Great!” I thought.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll make it.”

I fretted and I fussed for two weeks. Then I boarded the American Airlines flight from Miami to Sao Paulo. I spent the evening revising my speech and gave it the next morning at 9:00.

It went well. And it felt good.

You can tell if your speech works by watching the audience. If they are smiling at you, you’re doing a good job. If they are avoiding eye contact, you suck.

And if they swarm around you afterward, asking questions and “Would you mind taking a photo with me?” you did extra good. But the best is when some few of them tell you in a juddering whisper that you somehow changed their lives.

Here’s the thing: This has happened before. Actually, it happens all the time.

I agree to do something. Then, when the time gets near, I get fearful and anxious and begin to bash myself for having agreed to do it in the first place. The misery builds until the event. Then I do the thing I didn’t want to do and it turns out fine. In fact, I end up enjoying it.

Such a pathetic pattern…

And it’s not just about public speaking. It’s about negotiating difficult deals, solving tricky problems, bringing up sensitive issues… even meeting new people. Any sort of business activity that involves more than a superficial personal interaction gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Why? Because I don’t like conflict. Because I don’t like situations that might lead to embarrassment or disappointment. And increasingly it’s because I am uncomfortable doing difficult or awkward jobs on my own. I’m a wimp.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was young, I was bold, confident, nearly fearless. Sometimes to the point of foolishness or arrogance. But in a long career, all the many battles, lost or won, can wear you down.

I shouldn’t be saying “you.” This is what goes on with me.

The day after the Sao Paulo speech, I was reading Days Without End, a novel about the Civil War by Sebastian Barry. And I remembered a conversation I had with a close friend that served as a reconnaissance soldier in Vietnam.

It was an unusually frank conversation – one that vets seldom have with “civies” like me. He was describing the dirt and drudgery and dread he had experienced and talking bluntly about killing and seeing friends killed.

I asked him how he endured it.

“I think I just learned how to embrace the badness,” he said.

I wanted to know what that meant.

“It wasn’t because it wasn’t horrible. It was. But I figured out that the way I was looking at it was going to destroy my mind even if I wasn’t killed. I had been looking at my tour of duty as a tunnel, a dark, scary tunnel I had to run through in order to get to the other side. So I decided to visualize it differently, to see it as a walk through a field of grass. A field of grass I had chosen. A walk I was going to own.”

You could say that my friend’s story is total bullshit, that it’s impossible to “walk through” the horrors of war. But he didn’t seem to be bullshitting me. He had survived Vietnam without any obvious mental damage. He married the girl he left behind, had a long marriage with her, and now had a passel of grandchildren he adored.

My life now, even in its most stressful moments, is nothing like war. The challenges I face, however daunting they seem, are nothing like those he faced. If he managed to turn his tunnel into a field, why can’t I?

I might have told you this before: One of the many things I do when I’m battling depression is to list any unpleasant tasks or events I’m facing and label them “Opportunities for Happiness.” Rather than allow myself to automatically dread them, I challenge myself to think positively about them. If, for example, it’s a meeting with a sometimes annoying employee or a difficult phone call I have to make, I visualize myself enjoying it. And I use that mental image as a prod to push away any automatically negative thoughts.

It works pretty well.

For bigger challenges that are farther away, I’m thinking that I might be able to do what my friend did: Banish the tunnel and visualize the field.

Henry Ford once said, “One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”

Embrace the badness.

It could work. What do you think?