Some months ago a friend handed me a short manuscript and asked for my feedback on it. A big fan of feedback, but probably more willing to give it than people generally truly want, I asked what kind of feedback he wanted. He looked me square in the eye and said he’d really like to know what I thought. Fair enough. So I asked where it was going, and what stage it was at. He indicated that it had already gone to the printer, but it wasn’t too far in to make changes, if they were needed. This was not merely a professional courtesy, he assured me.
Unfortunately, it was there that I lost my head.
It’s flattering to have someone seek our opinion, and especially to move past what seems professional courtesy to an apparent willingness to alter his or her life based on our observations. It’s also destructive.
Very seldom, even when it is our job to do so, should we give feedback that is so structured that we take over the vital responsibility of self-discovery and personal experimentation that is the greatest gift each individual has. It is likewise hard on our personal growth to believe that it is our job to direct others in their discovery. There is something poisonous that happens when we begin to perceive ourselves as crucial to another’s success, much like hovering parents or bosses or governments warp their charges as well as themselves in their well-meant but overdrawn efforts.
I read his manuscript, with a pen in hand, which is always a mistake in the first read, even when an editor is truly required. You see, it was, after all, a professional courtesy. In his field, one increases one’s personal authority and credibility by sharing one’s finished work prior to publication, a way of “letting trusted associates in on the secret” and developing networks of invited supporters who will similarly share. The request was genuine, but one must know what was really being asked.
In my faith, a scriptural figure spoke to a large gathering of his people as he embarked on a new quest as their prophet. He prefaced his written words by explaining that they were the words he spoke to the people, “having first obtained mine errand from the Lord.” He had previously described many of the ills that had crept in among them and to any rational person, the path of better living was obvious. However, before he spoke, before he acted, he first sought to align his priorities and his goals, his ‘what’ and his ‘why,’ before he leapt into his ‘how.’
Those words have been running through my mind all morning. There are pressing ills all around us, and they cry loudly for attention. The world has lost its moorings, but sometimes so has our kitchen. The needs are obvious, whether we discuss fiscal responsibility or cleaning off the stove. It can be tempting to simply dive in and do what presents itself first, what cries loudest for our attention, the urgent, which may not also be important. We may even have something specific that we are to accomplish, a what that will still benefit from further understanding of the why.
I’m determined to live the lesson I learned with my friend. I did realize my mistake in understanding my errand, so rather than handing him an editor’s marked version of his manuscript, I thanked him for sharing it with me, appreciating the gesture that it was, but not before I misstepped and told him that I had first read with pen in hand. I learned something of the culture in which he worked and I have that in my back pocket. I learned something of making sense of the pressing responsibilities on many fronts that present themselves to me personally and professionally as well, and I’m considering that carefully as I act.
It is just as important to know why I’m being asked to do all the myriad things I’m doing as to simply check them all off my list as complete, or to assume I know the why and have the skill to perform the what. The why, properly understood, may change the what, and will almost certainly change the how. All things are not equal. All things are not important. But if we know what we’re doing, and why, we will know how to do all that is required of us.
Having first obtained our errand, we can move into the chaos with confidence, whether the chaos is in the kitchen or the culture.