Monday, September 26, 2011

What I Learned From Susan

Though people often refuse to believe me, and I've never understood why, I am a very nervous and uncomfortable public speaker. I know I do it a lot, sometimes every day of the week, but I've never gotten over the nerves and the discomfort that comes from putting myself, purposely, on display. Whenever I tell someone they almost always say, 'That's really hard to believe,' with a tone that tells me they don't believe me at all. Well, in fact, it's quite true. I get wildly nervous almost every single time I get up to speak. I have to take a sleeping pill the night before a lecture and an anti-anxiety just  before giving the lecture. It's now part of the routine, I accept it. I've been very cautious about my use of these medications and now trust myself, I only use them at those two times, never at any other.

What makes me really, really, nervous is lecturing in front of people I know. When I have to speak at the staff retreat at Vita, I'm wild with nerves. I mean, I'll have to see these people again, and again, and again. So the cost of failure is so much higher than flubbing in front of strangers who you get to leave behind - who only visit you in haunted memories of a bad performance. So, the cost is so much higher when there is so much more to lose.

Well, I learned something on Friday at a lecture I gave here in Toronto. I didn't know my friend Susan was going to be there so hadn't prepared myself that someone from my personal life (and professional life too, I suppose) would be in the audience. I saw her, she saw me, I waved, she waved back, she came and gave me a hug, I hugged her back. It was nice. As she went back to take her seat, I noticed something. When I looked down into myself, I didn't find the extra parcel of fear that comes from lecturing in front of a friend. It wasn't there. I searched for it, I looked under my stack of unexpressed regrets, I moved aside my pile of unresolved issues to see if it were hidden there, I even opened the dreaded drawer of disappointments and dropped opportunities, just to see if I'd misfiled the fear there.

I hadn't.

So there sat Susan, looking up at where I was sitting. The very same Susan I have tea with. The very same Susan who'd brought me a bag of home made granola bars because I'd gleefully guilted her into making them for me. The very same Susan who shares friends and interests and life stories with me. Yep, she was there, but the fear wasn't.

Why not?

I realized, with a shock, that it would be OK to fail in front of her. I knew, just knew, that if I did, she'd still be there, she'd still have tea with me, she'd still make me granola bars, she'd still call me friend. I knew, just knew that our relationship had moved in to the rare category of 'I'm safe with her.' It felt amazingly good.

And suddenly I realized how difficult it must people for people with intellectual disabilities, who's primary disability is one of learning, to live in a world where they must try, and fail, in front of others. Who must live with the judgement and disappointment of those who are supposed to care. Who must be at the end of other people's patience and understanding,. Who must feel the enormous, crushing tire tracks left on their souls when the eyes of another roll. For I wonder how many people, cause I know I didn't, ever really work at teaching people with disabilities the first and most important lesson: you are safe here with me, you are safe to try, you are safe to fail, you are safe to try again. Who bothers to teach children with disabilities that though they may have to struggle with learning they will never have to struggle to earn, or deserve, or be worthy of love and respect and caring? Who bothers?

Somehow Susan bothered.

Somehow she taught me that her care for me wasn't contingent, wasn't based on my performance, wasn't based on something as trivial as momentary success or momentary failure. I don't know how she did it. But she did.

And because she did, her presence there on Friday comforted me. Instead of feeling fear, I felt that I had someone standing resolutely in my corner. Someone I could trust.

Now I have a goal.

I want to ensure that I spend at least a little bit of time, every day with those I supervise, with those I support, with those I teach, letting them know something about me. Something about my character. I want them all to know that I honour success and I honour failure - that I'm honoured that people around me risk to learn, risk to try and risk to grow. That I want to be a person that stands with them, in their corner. That they need not, when I'm in the room, tuck a parcel, labeled 'fear' in a dusty corner of their heart.


theknapper said...

'You are safe here with me'....not as easy as it sounds but so important, so critical for change to occur.....lots to digest and then to create that space.

Anonymous said...

Oh Dave,

found someone to be safe with just a short while ago.

Feels absolultly comforting. I try to be someone to be safe with myself.

Thank you for bringing this idea up to everyones conscious.


Anonymous said...

I understand that fear, I live with this fear all the time. I have Autism, many times I can't do what I did before, sometimes I forget obvious things, I don't do what is expected, I fail too much and I don't feel safe, just scared of disappointing again.

Louise said...

Who bothers to teach children with disabilities that though they may have to struggle with learning they will never have to struggle to earn, or deserve, or be worthy of love and respect and caring? Who bothers?"

Well, I'm glad to say, the L'Arche communities. Of course we don't get it right all the time - but that is fundamentally what we're about.

Anonymous said...

oooooo, lovely post today. Dave, I am a lurker and only comment sporatically,( fear, embarrassment, low self worth) but wanted you to know I am here, listen and appreciate. Thank you.

Andrea S. said...

I encourage others who are reading these comments to go over to this particular blog post by "mybrainyourbrain" entitled "What I need and want,"

If you think of today's post by Dave as a piece explaining "why" people should enable others to feel safe around them, then you can consider Alicia Lie's post "What I need and want" a piece on "how" to do this. I think it makes a nice companion essay, as well as being good in its own right.

Thank you for stopping by Dave's blog today, "mybrainyourbrain"/Alicia Lie. I'm glad to have "met" you here.

Brenda said...

That's MY sis, and my buttons are popping. She's the best.....making the world a better place wherever she goes......following in our mother's footsteps....and our dad's.....and in her Master's. SO proud of you, Susan.....and thanks, Dave for letting the whole world know. She's so humble she will be embarrassed by all of this.

Susan said...

Wow, all I did was show up! :)

I have had identity issues all my life. At almost 60 years old, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up! At least not until today...

What I just learned from Dave: that just being "a safe place" for someone is something wonderful - and good - and maybe that's the "identity" I've been searching for all my life, and maybe, just maybe, that's all I want to be when I grow up. And maybe that's enough.

Well, that, and to develop a few more social skills... :)

Anonymous said...

I love my safe place and I love being a safe place is very rewarding and comforting, it is amazing once it is found and recognized.

Nan said...

You just gave me my goal for this week (for life, eh, but I'll start with this week) for coaching my daughter on some new bus routes and some pedestrain street safety issues.

Susan said...

Like Andrea S., I popped over to mybrainyourbrain to read:

...and was moved to tears. It's brilliant and I loved every word.

Janet Sketchley said...

Dave, thank you for the challenge to not only be a safe place for others but to communicate that to them.

I'm glad Belinda sent me to read your post! I spent Saturday morning at a seminar on intentional encouragement, and you've added to what I received there.