Those Things That Remain
July 6, 1963
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
I told you I would tell you why I condemn [R] plus her friends..It all started about the day before or the other day when we had Rest Hour. [R] started writing notes. I have a sample right here (you will find it in the envelope). Today in the bathhouse while we were changing the girls got in a huddle and started to talk about me…It is getting worser and worser. I feel very hurt and I want to come home on Visiting Day. Please try and arrange something.
Love and 1,000 kisses,
ps. Please write back and tell me your answer. Thank you.
I am terribly sorry to hear that you are having problems with R. What she is doing surely is not very nice or commendable, and if it spoils as much as an hour for you I am sad. However the idea is to see how to correct this problem as quickly as possible. We will do what we can and you must contribute also. You are a big girl and I’m sure you realize that in life you take a little bad with the good. If problems arise we must deal with the problem not run away from it. This solves nothing – it only makes more problems…Perhaps you have contributed your share. I know your first reaction would be no – but I’m sure that if you think about it you’ll realize that are always several sides to an issue and that you may have done your share here also…
When things go wrong we don’t back away, we stay [and] face them and work the thing out. This way we get satisfaction. When I get upset or discouraged I work harder until I’m happy. I don’t run away to Mommy. I’m sure you’ll find that you can work things out just fine and have a great summer at this marvelous camp.
I was eight years old when I sent and received these letters (I must tell you that I’m impressed that I used the word “condemn”). When my sister and I were growing up, New York kids with parents of certain means, would go to summer camp. Parents saved up for this gift – getting their children out of a sweltering city with no available summer activities. Although I still hurt for that kid, you should know that I eventually loved going to camp. But in my eight year old heart, I felt broken and re-defined by this particular summer (I swear my letters contained more sorrowful commentary than any Allen Sherman song).
To abbreviate the tale, I was redeemed by some talent or another that was greeted with enthusiasm later in the summer. Yet, some small part of me is still waiting for my parents to pick me up with dramatic indignation and bring me home. Even if they were still here, I’m not sure they would.
I’ve worked with hundreds of people throughout my career. Early life lessons have taught me that the most critical question one can ask prior to any exchange is “who’s it for?” Such a simple question, such a complicated answer. Two partners at the firm were engaged in an argument over office space – each positively livid with each other. I was receiving copies of their email exchanges – written as testaments to their positions. Some of the most eloquent writing I’ve ever read. When I spoke with one of them, his frustration was palpable – how could his friend not get it? So I asked the question that informs most of my training programs, conversations with friends, etc – who is it for? Fortunately, he laughed, threw an epithet in my direction and admitted that it was all for him. He wanted his colleague to see the logic of the decision, the sensitivity with which it was made – and at least acknowledge that as a leader he was unparalleled.
Cut to the next morning – and another email. This time he wrote an email of apology – from hell. You know the kind – ‘I’m sorry that you misinterpreted my position and for the purposes of rapprochement, I will explain it to you again.’ When he asked me for my thoughts – I again asked – ‘who was that for’? He hung up on me. He also picked up the phone and offered a genuine apology to his friend. Thirty years later the three of us remember this incident similarly, which says something about the accuracy of the memory I think.
At the end of the day, it would seem that the idea began to germinate when I was eight. The most successful dynamics are defined not by what we hope to gain, but by our understanding of what others want from us. If we are able to provide that without compromising our belief systems, without upending our fragile sense of who we are, then the end result is potentially far more rewarding than we could have ever hoped. I used to tease my mom, asking her to eliminate the words, ‘no’ and ‘but’ from her vocabulary. Maybe we could also try using a little less ‘I’ and a lot more ‘you’?