Drunken louts in bars? Road-raging Hummer-drivers? Vitriolic right-wing politicians? They all fear me. I know you might think this is because of my massive pectoral muscles (why thank you) or my angry profane outbursts, which nobody can verify ever having seen but which are the stuff of legends documented in the bark of the mighty oak . . . anyway, no, that’s not why. All of these folks fear me because they thrive on the intimidation factor of people perceiving them to be “confrontational,” but I know their secret, that they fear REAL confrontation at least as much as the people they bully.
When I began working with Marty Khan of Outward Visions as a management consultant/business mentor almost a year ago, I was aware that he had a reputation as an ornery bastard. However it quickly became clear that anything to that effect was the product of doing what ethically needed to be done in a given situation. Indeed, his wonderful book Straight Ahead presents confrontation one of the Seven Keys to Empowerment and Creativity, offering this definition of the term up-front:
A highly misperceived concept, confrontation is usually viewed negatively as contentious, disruptive and damaging to relationships and productivity. In reality, confrontation is simply recognition of something that needs to be dealt with, and then dealing with it. In its most positive application, confrontation is examining an issue and finding a solution before it becomes a big problem that will most likely result in the unpleasant form of confrontation to solve it further down the line.
This was one reason I knew that Marty and I could work together – I had never quite thought in these terms, but THAT version of confrontation has been fundamental to my worldview from the beginning. If something comes up, whether emotional, interpersonal, logistical or societal, you acknowledge it and you address it. Whether to deal with it is a no-brainer, the only questions are when and how. This is particularly important with personal issues – nobody else is going to notice this pattern that keeps holding me back or making me upset, much less fix it, so if I don’t want to be at its mercy forever, I need to do something, beginning with the simple acknowledgement that there is, in fact, something to be done.
While there is an obvious emotional component to this, my embracing of the idea of healthy confrontation couldn’t sustain itself on emotional belief alone. I’m too much of a pragmatist for that. I like to believe that my cat loves me, and I go along with that belief for my own amusement, but I know rationally that if I disappeared tomorrow he’d have equal “love” for whoever took over feeding him and cleaning up his barf . . . but wait, we’re not on the subject of cats just yet. My valuing of confrontation isn’t because I’m a sensitive guy who thinks feelings are important (though I am and I do). And it isn’t because I enjoy getting into arguments – I’ve never raised a fist to anyone in my life and given my physical vulnerability I have always had too much of a stake in avoiding getting my ass kicked for it to be sane to confront people recklessly. No, I value confrontation because without it I think it’s impossible to have sustained success or happiness.
I engage in confrontation every day before I crawl out of bed. I confront the joint pain and fatigue that greets me each day and I confront the emotional response to that. I confront the emotional debris left behind by childhood trauma. I confront whatever resistance I may have to the day’s tasks or to whatever kept me from sleeping as well as I might have liked. Once I get up and engage directly in my day, I do so prepared to confront anything that might endanger my well-being or that of someone towards whom I feel responsible, whether my daughters, my students or simply the human race.
From that perspective, the arch-nemesis of healthy confrontation is avoidance. Much of this falls in a category I refer to as “Cat in the Rain” phenomenon. Those who used to come hear the earliest incarnation of my current trio 10+ years ago (during our “residency” at It’s Only Natural restaurant) probably got sick of hearing my spiel to introduce the tune “Cat In the Rain,” but the rest of you (or those among you who are nostalgic for those days of yore) can sit back and follow along with this explanation. Basically, if it’s raining then a cat quite naturally wants to come inside. Except that once inside and dry, the cat notices that it isn’t raining anymore . . . so he wants to go back outside . . . except then it’s raining again, so he wants to come back in . . . and so on ad infinitum or until the darned thing just falls asleep or the human in charge lets the cat get drenched in the rainy outdoors or keep whining in the rain-protected indoors.
This is a phenomenon my father pointed out to me when I was a kid, and as far as I could gather, it merely served the function of illustrating how needy yet stupid cats are. In my 20s, however, I began to see this as a potent allegory for widespread human avoidance patterns. That is, when we are in crisis we react, but the reaction is quite naturally centered on escaping the crisis, not solving it. Once we’re out of the woods, we’re just relieved and we enjoy the respite from suffering and we don’t think about it anymore . . . until we walk right back into the same situation, no more prepared than we were the last time. A common example is two people who have the same fight over and over in a recurring pattern. The fight happens, it’s nasty, it fades away, both people are relieved and enjoy the comparative euphoria of “making up” and the last thing they want to do is dissipate their relief by talking about unpleasant things like the reasons a fight may have occurred. Besides, everything is fine now, at least until some external trigger inevitably sucks them both right back into that same crisis.
I certainly know people whose level of avoidance goes far beyond “Cat in the Rain” proportions, who by that logic will sit in the dousing rain saying “tra la la, what lovely weather.” But while most of us scorn THAT level of denial, we still struggle with necessary confrontation. As a teacher, I find that the “Cat in the Rain” Syndrome is responsible for a large proportion of the stunted progress that is otherwise difficult to diagnose. A student may be talented, smart and even able to devote adequate time to the task of practicing, but for so many, sounding bad (which is a given when addressing the areas that need work) FEELS bad. We feel inadequate or un-talented or stupid. We don’t like to feel that, so we practice everything BUT the things that actually are causing struggle, everything that doesn’t need attention. The next practice session reveals no progress on the things that weren’t good last time, the ego feels even worse, and the avoidance kicks into another gear, and a practice routine is concocted that somehow rationally appears to be “productive,” though it is built on a hope-against-hope that something other than pro-active addressing of the flaws will yield the desired result. If there is a performance coming up, this is even more intense, because there is a ticking clock outlining the ineffectiveness of the approach and the likelihood of resulting public embarrassment, causing more anxiety, which can provide further incentive to go into avoidance mode. I assure you I’ve been there on both sides of this phenomenon.
Whether young people or high-functioning adults, I find most people struggle with this in some facet of life. In some ways this is obvious, like the teenager who will bargain away everything short of his soul to get out of a jam but is then nowhere to be seen when it’s time for lawn-mowing or for a conversation about how he got into the jam in the first place. But even a highly functional person often has an “Achilles heel” where a particular behavior is particularly stubborn in aligning with “Cat in the Rain” mentality, such as the world-conquering CEO who promises his doctor that he’ll do something about his high blood pressure and then has a cheeseburger and a beer to deal with the stress of his imperfect health.
According to my belief system, the universe is persistent in giving us opportunities to confront and meaningfully address the issues that we fear. As with my cat’s affection, I can’t prove “the universe” is behind my encountering the same obstacle over and over until I meaningfully address it. But I can say with rational certainty that it happens and that avoidance doesn’t work, regardless of whether there is any cosmic master plan (or whether my personal growth factors into said plan if there is one). There are generally more things to confront in one’s life than hours in the day, so I do not wish to imply that we should address everything all the time. The student-avoidance dynamic I described above is fairly harmless for someone who still enjoys playing and for whom inefficiency of musical practice is of comparatively trivial importance. However, the clarity and courage to confront things becomes a lot more important when Cat in the Rain Syndrome manifests in our relationships, in our health, in our careers and especially in our attempts to liberate ourselves from inner demons and self-destructive patterns.
This is where the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes into the narrative. One of the things that I have always found so compelling about the Reverend’s work is that his pursuit of justice was so utterly relentless, while at the same time entirely compassionate and nonviolent. This made him vulnerable to criticism from both directions even from those who agreed with his stance on equality, whether it was moderate white liberals wanting him to back off and be more patient or Malcolm X and his followers rejecting the nonviolent component of Dr. King’s approach. There was, however, no other way – to him violence and hate were not legitimate components of the struggle, but the perception of injustice carried with it an unquestionable responsibility to confront that injustice and to continue doing so until it was eradicated. His unpopular anti-war stance was another important example of this. He was certainly savvy enough to know that coming out against the war in Vietnam would compromise the support of some who had come to be his allies on civil rights. However, his life’s work was built on an honesty and integrity that would not allow him to remain passive and silent about something that he felt so strongly needed to be confronted directly and courageously.
For me, Martin Luther King Day is a chance to celebrate the many lessons he taught the human race, lessons that go beyond the ever-important truth of equality. This year, I am focusing on his rejection of Cat in the Rain Syndrome and his embracing of confrontation as a necessary means for living in reality and creating a just, compassionate world. As a society we find ourselves at several such crossroads, and a case could be made that one of the biggest obstacles against peace is the stubbornness of those who cling to a Cat in the Rain worldview, who cling to life as they perceive it, even as contrary information stares them in the face. Can we really look at a massacre of children (or any number of other things plaguing us) and conclude with any integrity or rationality that the solution is to keep things as they are and simply look away and hope that it doesn’t happen again? Dr. King surely would not approve.
In the end, as corny as it probably sounds, healthy confrontation begins from within. Insofar as I have any strength in spite of being physically weak, it is largely because I dig in and reject the notion of being another Cat in the Rain. I really do believe that if we all increase our vigilance on that front, we will at the very least begin collectively dealing with life’s challenges at face value, which is no small thing. I’ll sign out with a song that I wrote about this kind of avoidance pattern a little over a year ago. It’s certainly not the most musically sophisticated song I’ve ever written but I like to think the lyrics and the mood make the point reasonably well.
click here to hear Magic Wand by Noah Baerman
copyright 2011. (NB: vocals, whistling, melodica, guitar, tambourine, kazoo)
You like to think of utopian things
A world where we all get along
You love to hear when the nightingale sings
A carefree and beautiful song
But sometimes the song becomes sad
People you love may get mad
So what to do when you want things to be right
And still they keep coming out wrong
Tra la la (tra la la)
Hi de ho (hi de ho)
It’s fine if I pretend it’s so
La de da (la dee da)
Ho de ay (ho de ay)
The sadness will just go away
Wave your big magic wand by the lily pad pond
Lift your gong in the air and then sound it
But when you wake to see that a new day has dawned
The world will be just as you found it
Shake your arm, wave your hand, to the rhythm of the elfin band
While the fairies and gnomes dance around it
But you’ll see when you take your head out of the sand
The world is still just as you found it
Sometimes you must bite off something that’s hard
But you can’t just spit, you must chew it
Even if fate deals a difficult card
You just have to buck up and do it
But still you dig in your heels
Trying to avoid how it feels
But that won’t give you the change that you want
There’s no way around, only through it
La de dee (la dee dee)
Floop de doo (floop de doo)
Sorry to say, but my words are true
Tutti fruit (tutti fruit)
Take your head out of your ass