Unlearning Self-Defense

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"When I am focused on that true self, I’m able to reconcile with others because I don’t have anything to hide, to prove, or to defend," writes Ed Cyzewski for our series Reconciliation at Work.

“Don’t mess with him buddy. He’s got a lot of money and a lot of booze.”

Dave the maintenance man had witnessed the event in the supply room that sent the staff at our little nonprofit into panic mode. A week into my new job as a volunteer coordinator, I had to figure out what to do with an elderly volunteer who had fallen over drunk while in our building. I’d spent the previous four years attending seminary and working at a church and felt out of my depth immediately.

Dave’s counsel was supported by our other maintenance man, Chuck, “Let him be. You know that private school in town? Guess who funded it.”

“Uh, huh,” Dave added. “Stay out of it.”

I didn’t really know how to stay out of it. It was my job to coordinate the volunteers, after all. To make things worse, the wife of my inebriated volunteer, who apparently kept whiskey stashed in his pocket, was one of my most reliable volunteers. Everyone called her “Birdie.” I had learned to count on either Birdie or her husband to cheerfully help out almost every time I called to schedule them.

After consulting our director, I worked out a system where I scheduled Birdie whenever I saw her in person and never had to call her at home where the risk of reaching her husband could put me in an awkward situation.

A Second Chance

Over time, word reached us that Birdie’s husband had taken a “vacation” for a few months and was ready to begin volunteering again. He even stopped by to meet with the director and me. We were happy to give him another chance, but my director had told me that any future incidents meant he was banned.

Things went quite well for a year, until we ran out of chairs.

It was really just a comedy of errors, only Birdie’s husband happened to find none of it funny.

I had been making my typical rounds with the various volunteers, and Birdie’s husband happened to be last. While on my way over to see him, Betty, our intern, warned me that he was having a fit. I couldn’t imagine what had happened.

Apparently we had run out of chairs and tables because of an unexpectedly high turnout for an event that I had no part in planning. Without enough chairs at the event, parents were chasing kids all over the building. The staff member who was supposed to be present to supervise was nowhere to be found. In fact, the only staff member available was unable to lift heavy objects.

Birdie’s husband huffed and puffed hauling chairs to the event where far too many children crammed themselves around a single table. When I arrived he was ready to yell at me—a lot.

I managed to keep my cool, but in the midst of his rant, he shouted, “I will never volunteer here ever again.”

Jumping on the opportunity, I replied, “I’m sorry to hear you’ve resigned. You won’t have to finish your shift today.”

I caught him by surprise, but he stormed out.

Need for Approval

A few days later, Birdie stopped by to tell me that she was done volunteering with us, too. As she walked out, she said, “You handled that situation poorly.”

Her words stung. Had I? Wasn’t it obvious that I’d been wronged?

At the very least, I abided by the guidelines given by my director. Perhaps I’d taken advantage of words spoken in anger, but I also couldn’t have volunteers losing it every time our staff made a mistake. Frustrating as the situation may have been, volunteers were part of our organization and had their own standards for conduct.

What hit me harder than Birdie’s opinion of my actions was just how deeply I wanted her approval. Her comment cut to the core of something deeper going on inside of me—something that I’ve been sorting out for the past ten years since that day.

It’s one thing to “do the best you can” in a tough situation. It’s quite another thing to try to make everyone happy. I didn’t want to be the bad guy, but it was inevitable. If I let the outburst pass, it would be my director storming into my office to tell me I’d handled things poorly.

Finding My True Self

Looking back today, I can see that I was too busy trying to defend myself to truly seek out reconciliation. I had an image in my mind of the kind of person I was or at least aspired to be, and any attack on that self-image sent me spiraling into defensiveness.

Richard Rohr calls this the false self—the self we create and protect. We construct this self on our own, but our family, culture, and even religion all pitch in and contribute to the self we attempt to portray and protect.

The true self, however, is who we really are—the beloved who is pursued by God. “Your True Self is who you are and always have been in God,” Rohr wrote in his book Immortal Diamond.

When I am focused on that true self, I’m able to reconcile with others because I don’t have anything to hide, to prove, or to defend. My sense of self worth, my success in life, and my identity have an unshakable foundation in God.

Once I’m saved from the need to protect myself, I can look beyond myself to the needs and perspectives of others. I can absorb their criticism and anger better, looking for the source of the offense rather than reacting to the symptoms.

From the vantage point of my true self, I can look back on the situation with Birdie’s husband differently. I see an old man who felt like life was out of control, and it took just one inconvenience to send him into a rage. Unfortunately, I was too busy protecting myself to truly see him.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Names, details, and events have been altered to protect the identify of those involved.