“That scarf doesn’t match your sweater. Can’t you do better?” That was how our conversation began. My mother’s first cousin Colene never held back an opinion. And yet she never made you feel bad. How did she manage that?
This is the question I’m pondering a month after her death as we approach the new year. The day before she died, a nurse said, “I loved Colene. She was so much fun – even when she was saying she was going to kick us in the teeth!”
I can hear her saying it now. She was fun. She was feisty. She was independent. She was confident enough to take driver’s ed at the local high school when she was 70 years old. And she was successful. She got her driver’s license and drove until she was in her 90s.
My cousin Johnny has a similar gift. He served in a state legislature in the Northwest for 30 years, retiring in 2017. He is disconcertingly direct and unafraid to let you know where he stands. Unlike most politicians, with Johnny there is no spin, no hedging, and no equivocating. Rather than being reviled for this, he is admired, trusted, and respected.
Colene and Johnny were not related, but they knew and liked each other. Dinner with the two of them was an annual event not to be missed. Conversation was lively, sometimes uncomfortable, but always uplifting…always uplifting.
When I ask myself, “Can’t you do better?”, that’s what I’m asking. Is the result of my interactions uplifting? It sounds like an impossible bar, but I have two shining examples that it is not.
Both of those examples felt free to state their truth, share opinions, and be direct. And that’s what they wanted in return. They didn’t have a need for anyone else to conform to their way of thinking. In fact, they welcomed differing viewpoints. That’s what made the conversations interesting.
And perhaps it’s as simple as that. Having the courage to listen, state my truth, share my opinion, and be direct without the need to control the response may be all it takes to leave people feeling better. It certainly builds trust. It has other benefits as well.
I trust you more if I know you’ll level with me. When you don’t, I sense it and become wary. I don’t like feeling that way. If it happens often, I will no longer rely on you. I will feel I must guard myself.
In order to be at our best, do our best work, and thrive, it is important to have people in our lives who will level with us. I remember the poet Miller Williams saying he trusted his wife to tell him when to stop writing because a poem was finished. He relied on her for this. He believed it made his poems better. I can’t argue with that. They feel right to me.
There’s another benefit to voicing how you really feel without expectation of anyone else. Doing this creates an environment of safety for others to do the same. I always felt free to tell Colene the truth, even when it was not what she wanted to hear.
Once she could not walk, she sometimes asked me if she could go home. I didn’t tell her she might someday or leave her hanging with a we’ll see. I kindly and gently told her no. If she asked why, I would remind her that she could not walk and her house was not set up for lifts and wheelchairs.
She knew all of this was true. She felt it even when she could no longer absorb the words. There was never an argument, hysterics, or whining. She asked a simple question. I gave her a simple answer and the conversation shifted to something else.
Stating your truth without equivocation shows respect for yourself and also for the listener. Feeling respected builds our sense of worthiness.
Colene made some pretty strong stands. Many years ago, she objected to one of her relatives’ choice in spouses. On the day of his wedding, she got in the car with her father, mother, and sister to go to the ceremony. A couple of minutes later, she said, “I’m not going to this wedding. I think it’s wrong.” Her father stopped the car, let her out, and she walked home.
In many families, this boycott would have created lingering hard feelings. That was not the case. Colene and the groom remained close until he died at age 91.
Her opinions were well-thought and her sentiments so sincere, you knew she wasn’t condemning you when she disagreed. She was just following her heart and her conscience. This is another characteristic she shared with Johnny and there’s something disarming about it that maintains bonds rather than threatening them.
If I am always holding back, I cannot live fully. It may be tempting to believe that I can garner favor or earn love by syncing my responses with those whose love or admiration I desire. If you have tried that approach, you know as well as I do that it never works that way. Ultimately, those who appreciate me will appreciate me and those who don’t, won’t.
Holding back my truth may sometimes help me avoid embarrassment, shame, humiliation, and feeling alone in a particular moment, but over time it diminishes my spirit and damages my soul. That’s a huge price to pay for momentary comfort. And it may mean that I will miss out on supportive friendships I wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to cultivate.
As I process my grief over losing Colene, I often repeat the question — can’t I do better? Of course I can. And I intend to. That still doesn’t mean she’d approve of my scarf choice.