Child 2 came to me today, sat down in the rocking chair behind my desk, and said, “I need your advice.” Manna to a mother’s soul, but something that has happened more and more as the years have marched on and I quit shoving my advice down their throats unrequested. I like that. (I bet they do too.) I’d much rather give advice only on request. There’s something powerful about how people listen when they really want to know the answer. Now you, out in cyberspace, you get it nonstop, but then I figure you come back here, so it’s open season.
He wanted my suggestion about how to handle a situation in which someone in a leadership position was not pulling his weight (not his brother – I just like this old picture.) I had to laugh a bit. Isn’t that sort of one of the standard ten irritating people problems for the rest of your life?
I told him that we are really lucky that the scriptures have an answer for that. Matthew tells us (18:15-17) that there’s a process to working something out, but the process tells us something vital about God: he wants us to work things out. Many people feel that to be kind is to ignore unpleasantnesses, to be long-suffering is to put up with poor conditions, and to be charitable is to smile in the face of … a smack in the face.
The counsel about which people get so confused is the “turn the other cheek” thing. The context is that we don’t revile, not that we go sticking our face out stupidly. We’re better off taking another smack to the face than smacking someone else back, but no smack is still the best option.
However, I digress. Working things out means communicating, and God would have us do it well. Kindly, patiently, with great understanding, but with clarity. Step 1: go to someone in private. Not go tell all your friends what a jerk someone is being, but go to them privately and only them. What happens if that doesn’t result in mutual understanding? Step 2: Go back with a witness. Sounds kind of intimidating, like you’re ganging up on someone, doesn’t it? You should try it. It makes you very careful about how you express yourself. It’s then two people who are now listening to you describe how someone else has wounded you, and you better believe it makes you consider your words. And we should have to consider our words carefully if we’re willing to say that a problem rests on someone else’s shoulders. But say it still doesn’t work, then what? Step 3: Take it to the appropriate authority. The police. The church. The school. A licensing board. A boss. You name it, we have an authoritative body to consider breaches. Person still persists? Step 4: Let it go. It says “let them be as a stranger or a publican.” Sounds sort of like “casting out” doesn’t it? But look at their culture. This is just a resetting of the expectations. You still can’t behave as if that person doesn’t exist, or treat them badly. It just means that you owe them nothing beyond common courtesy, and they likewise owe you nothing. You just hit the reset button.
This is a powerful process, in three short verses of scripture. Within this framework we are called upon to act with the highest integrity in our relationships, communicating fairly. It’s much easier to run someone down than it is to address an issue face to face, and it requires a great deal of courage to face a problem with an eye focused on resolving it. It also protects people from becoming doormats and bottling their frustrations. It doesn’t say, “when you can’t stand it anymore, go explode on someone,” it says “if thy brother shall trespass against thee.” It doesn’t say, “only do this on the big things,” it says “trespass.” It means, if something comes up, handle it. With clarity. Immediately. And the goal is to “gain thy brother.” Brotherhood. Connection. How does that alter our communication?
As a Mormon, I also have the words given to a later prophet, Joseph Smith, who had this (paraphrased) to say about leadership: you can’t and shouldn’t try to maintain a power or influence over someone except by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness and love unfeigned, etc (D&C 121:41-44.) He mentions the occasional need for reproof, with clarity, but then counsels to follow with an increase of love, “lest he esteem thee his enemy.” The purpose of the relationship is to communicate that “thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.”
That’s pretty powerful leadership training. As we discussed it, he marked the verses on his iphone so that he could find them easily later, and we marveled that this scriptural record is such a useful document. I know I’ve written about it before, but to me, these are the spirits of long-dead friends who speak to me and counsel me and give me answers when I truly don’t know where to turn. I am so glad to receive their advice.
It now becomes my turn to practice what I preach. I failed for some time to address several issues, talking myself into believing that the charitable thing to do was to let things that were uncomfortable slide. They built up, however, as all things do that are not handled one way or another, and I exploded on someone I care very much about. Since it was not handled with meekness and clarity, and there was no showing an increase of love afterwards, there are a lot of hurt feelings. No assurance that my faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death, no gaining a brother. And no resolving of the situation either.
These are not just good ideas, these guidances in the scriptures. They’re the only way things work. I’m so glad someone asks me for advice occasionally so I can take it myself.