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Talk About It Vs Type About It

Yes, I see the irony of typing out a blog when I’m discussing a message about talking to other humans. Give me some grace, let’s see if I can get to where I’m going with this.Several events over the last week have all spun in their separate planetary orbits, seemingly unconnected. Then the final event joined the swirl and bang, the planets aligned like a string of blindingly bright beads pulled taut between my conscious and the very centre of the universe. A roundabout way of describing an insight, I suppose.

The events/planets were:

  1. Stopping to offer help to a woman defecating on the footpath in the middle of town
  2. Two notices printed in my son’s school newsletter
  3. Doing a U-turn so my husband could talk to a teenager vandalising a street tree

Diverse! Welcome to life at the Howies.

Events 1 and 3 were moments where we had a choice. Actually, event 2 was also a choice for the author of the newsletter. I’m going to avoid self-editing and leave those last two sentences where they are because they illustrate how easy it is for all of us to forget that we have choices. We all have choices. Some situations only offer us tiny, unattractive choices. Some situations offer us limitless personal choices. I’m not trying to judge.

The exercise of choice is where we switch in the most profound and powerful way from passive living to active, purposeful living. We become agents. We use our agency. [more on agency another time]

So, of course you’re wondering about the defecation incident. Who wouldn’t? It was a startling sight, so out of the norm that my body stopped in its tracks, my senses were heightened and I felt a surge of embarrassment, shame, fear and confusion. Luckily that all happened in a nano second and empathy flooded in very quickly. I could so easily have walked past her, others would have. No judgement for that. That day, I stood at a distance and spoke loud enough so she would know I was I talking to her, “Are you OK? Is there anything I can do to help?…the mall toilets aren’t very far, just down there…”

Mumbled reply to the ground, trousers pulled up, off she went. And so did I.

Then came the school newsletter. Two notices: one (which I have read many, many times before) reminding parents not to drop off their kids in the small staff car park, to park on the road instead. A safety message, pretty standard you’d probably say. This notice makes me clench my jaw, go tense all over and (sometimes) shout to the household “these parents are NOT reading the ***ing newsletter! Get up from behind your desk and go stand in the car park where you can TALK to them!!!”

The second notice from the Council, reminding the local community that playgrounds were recently upgraded at considerable expense and the enjoyment of the parks is being affected by the actions of vandals and young people exhibiting anti-social behaviour. Again, a valid message. A message that never in the history of this planet has reached the ears, eyes and hearts of the vandals by being printed in a school newsletter that usually fails to land in the hands of the relevant parents. If my own sons ever grow up to be vandals and I learn about it in a school newsletter I am prepared to print this blog and eat it. We simply cannot build a playground and think that it will be used appropriately by every single member of a community. Should we never build playgrounds? No, of course not. Should we be upset when they are vandalised? Yes, that’s a normal and natural response for anyone who poured effort, thought and budget into the project. We are all human, even the vandals and young people who want to hang outside of the home, socialise, be seen, be heard – all too often in ways that adults just cannot fathom. We can’t type a message and expect change. We have to talk about it.

Now the tree. My husband is a gifted landscaper, a true man of the land. He loves trees, he has some insight into the street tree programme and he has even planted some in our city. So the sight of a boy, maybe 14 or 15, attacking a young Magnolia like a robot with a broom handle, made him enormously angry. We were driving in our car when he saw it, asked to me turn around so he could talk to the kid. I agreed, but reminded him of our little offspring audience in the back seat. When we pulled up, the footpath was littered with broken twigs, leaves and mess. He’d gone to town on the tree. Window down, with great self-control, “Oi, what do you think you’re doing?…[shrugged, dunno]…take…your…stick…and go back inside [shrugs, says nothing, hardly moves]. We drove home, still able to see this boy across the park. Inside at the kitchen window, he and I talked about the kid, wondering; who else is home inside that house? Why is he so angry/bored/mindless?

He didn’t attack the tree again that night, as far as we could tell. We think he was startled to be confronted, probably shamed. We don’t know. But we talked about the nameless boy a little bit, just like we talked about the woman I met on the street, just like we talked about the considerably smaller impact achieved by a notice in a newsletter.

It’s so easy to type. So easy to comment from a phone keyboard, so easy to just hit like or wow. So easy to think we’ve ticked it off by putting a notice in the newsletter.

It’s much much harder to talk, but to me that’s what changes the world. Conversation, face to face, in real time. That is not hiding; that is brave, out-there, vulnerable action. And anyone can do it.

Leadership and the Invisible Contract