A Matter of Perspective

Doors of perspective
Originally published MAR. 14, 2022

I want to take the risk of breaking from my recent subject matter—the somewhat abstract but nonetheless crucial importance of the principles that guide organizational ombudship—to share a more personal view of conflict resolution.

We all know someone who seems to delight in wringing any possible drop of tragedy from joy, someone who will always remind you of how awful life tends to be. This is a person who transcends the humdrum carping about misfortune that follows them around like a bill collector, and rises to a level of bringing people down that most can’t even imagine. One example that I’ve anonymized but gives you a flavor: imagine that you are at a child’s birthday party, with excitement and good vibes near the roof as the parents light the candles on the cake. Before the first notes of “Happy Birthday” are out, this person will regale the room with the story of how they once had a birthday party, but the candles sparked a five-alarm fire.

Recently, I attended a memorial service for a relative who passed away after a long, objectively difficult life: orphaned at a young age, jailed for nearly a decade by an authoritarian regime, chased from his homeland by another set of authoritarians, resettled in a country where he didn’t speak the language, losing his beloved wife to cancer, and finally dying after a period of decline.

I attended the memorial with another relative who is very much in the mode described above. Perhaps survivor’s guilt, but it seems difficult for her to take any but the most pessimistic view of any situation. As she walked to the front of the room to speak, I felt a foreboding of dread, as surely she would find a way to make our relative’s life story even more tragic than it was.

Not speaking the language that much of the service was in, I confess that I didn’t have a clue about what she was saying. But anyone could see that her words were connecting with the mourners. Starting softly but gaining confidence as the memories came flowing back, she had them smiling, then laughing. A few were still wiping their eyes, but the room was united (even those of us who didn’t speak the language) with our memories of a man who had found a way to keep living.

She got, by far, the biggest reaction of any speaker that day.

It wasn’t at all what I was expecting: again, though I didn’t understand the words, I could see that this wasn’t her usual litany of woe.

I asked her what she’d said, and it was just a few stories about the departed’s foibles, in a way that everyone could relate to. It was what everyone needed to hear (whether we understood it or not).

So tragedy at a birthday party, light comedy at a funeral. This, I think, is a way of coping with life’s hardships. When things are going well, remember that you always haven’t been happy, maybe out of the superstitious fear that good times precede bad—it’s a way to inoculate yourself against disappointment. But when life really does bite back, think of happy times, to remind yourself that it’s worth it.

My experience that day brought to mind a former colleague, long gone, known for her caustic personality. People cringed at meetings when she spoke. Kind words from her were rare, and she seemed to approach her job as a zero-sum game: if her colleagues were satisfied, that meant she couldn’t be.

One evening I went to a concert at a venue where she moonlighted as an usher. I could only imagine how awfully she would treat random strangers who she would never see again, given that she had no hesitation in terrorizing those who she saw every day.

But that’s not what I saw. She was beyond courteous and more than helpful. Laughing, joking, helping people to their seats, sincerely wishing them a good night; this was not just a side of her that I had never seen, but a person I had never met. Helping me, she was just as effervescent. I do not believe that, before or after this night, I had ever seen her smile.

Seeing the glow in her eyes made the night for me. For years I had worked alongside side her, but I had never seen her happy. I couldn’t comprehend that she could be happy. And yet here she was, checking tickets and pointing the way, radiating good will to all. She has been gone for years, but when I think of her, that’s who I remember.

I’m still not sure why she couldn’t be that friendly, joyful person with her colleagues. Maybe the anonymity of ushering freed her of the burden of safeguarding her professional reputation; maybe she started on the wrong foot with her colleagues and couldn’t change course; maybe she was afraid of getting hurt.

That night stuck with me, because it showed me that even people who seem to revel in misanthropy can enjoy helping others; they just need the right context. And it made me question my judgments about others, because when I only see one side of them, it might not be their best side.

Of course, we can flip this back onto ourselves: if we only saw the person who we present to others at work, what would we think? Do we hide our good side from others?

I will close by saying that, as much as we like to think we know others, they can always surprise us. And, when in conflict with someone, it might be best to surprise them—in a good way. That might be the moment that brings you closer to an understanding.

And remember, no matter what the conflict you are facing, if you would like to speak with an impartial voice in a confidential setting that is completely distinct from any formal process, disciplinary or otherwise, do not hesitate to make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is open.

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