The Ties That Bind

I attended a funeral this weekend. It was for my father’s cousin at whose house I spent so much of my childhood. We weren’t particularly close–I haven’t seen her in years. However, I understand towards the end she became a shut-in, and when she died, she died alone. That made me very sad.

Like many families, there are some nasty skeletons in our closet. And like many people who misplaced the handbook on How to Be a Perfect and Super Awesome Person somewhere along the line, our approach to dealing with those skeletons has been to board the closets up, throw blankets over them and try not to think about it. My family and I are big on emotional health and maturity that way.

The result of that approach, of course, is that while my immediate family (parents and sister) are fairly close, our extended family has been seriously fractured along certain lines. Because my father was named executor of the estate, information came to light during the weeks leading up to the funeral that caused old wounds to tear open again and bleed fiercely. It’s been a trying time, replete with the entire spectrum of human emotion.

But death is a funny thing.

Old Shoe courtesy of thelastpterodactyl on Flickr
Dirty old shoe courtesy of thelastpterodactyl on Flickr

Family members we thought lost to us forever through choice and memory turned up at the funeral. We have an opportunity to repair those fractures. It’s early yet, of course, but I believe that with time, we may be able to accomplish that. With the loss of one loved one, we may have gained two more, and I’m grateful. My only regret is that a woman had to die alone to make that possible.

Through my reading on empathy, and trying to find the right place for it within a leadership setting, I’ve found a ton of material. The bulk of the information suggests that we are hard wired for empathy, and that we can use empathic connections with one another to better all mankind and build a better planet, and buy the world a Coke, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

It’s a nice message, but it’s a load of horseshit. Empathy, while important and valid, is only part of the equation.

Throughout our lives, we make choices. They’re not always the best choices…in fact sometimes they’re downright terrible. Sometimes we choose to hang on to memories that are painful, or cling to a course of action because we’re afraid of the consequences of doing otherwise. While empathy may be a strong connective force, sometimes choice and memory are stronger.

The fact is, we’re all human beings first, and that aforementioned handbook, sadly, doesn’t exist. All of us on this planet get up out of bed every day and try to do the best we can. Sometimes we have days where what we touch turns to gold…and then there’s days where what we touch turns to a big pile of steaming excrement. The latter tends to be what we dwell on. And all the bad feelings associated with it–fear, anger, jealousy, contempt–we tend to cling to because to do otherwise would be to accept that we created a mess. Shame and denial are empathy’s perfect foil.

How many relationships do we sabotage, at work or at home, because we’re hanging on to some dirty old shoe like it’s a precious gift?

Making mistakes is a part of living. Sometimes they’ll be little ones, like behaving badly at a party…and sometimes they’ll be whoppers, like making a bad investment call and wiping out massive chunks of your savings (I’ve done both–yay for me!) There will be consequences to and lessons from every mistake you make…but you’re deluded if you think you can get through life without making them. The thing is, once you’ve paid your dues and learned your lesson, all that’s left is a dirty old shoe. Is it really a better keepsake than the companionship of those around you?

And for people who insist on holding grudges against those who’ve transgressed (or even just their associates)…you know what? You’re holding a dirty old shoe, too.

While this post is partly for my family, it’s partly for you, too. If you’re hanging on to a dirty old shoe, one day you’re going to look back on a life of decay and find yourself filled with regret. Don’t let tragedy be the thing that causes you to realize that. Throw that shoe in the garbage and move on.

Iโ€™m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Thomas

    Great post.. I think I will though out a few old shoes today.

  • Margaret

    Geoff,
    First my condolences to you and your family.
    You are right death is a funny thing. It seems ironic to me that at the time when we need our family the most and relationships to be at their best they are often at their worst.
    Congratulations on tossing out the old shoe, may we all do the same.

  • Margaret

    Geoff,
    First my condolences to you and your family.
    You are right death is a funny thing. It seems ironic to me that at the time when we need our family the most and relationships to be at their best they are often at their worst.
    Congratulations on tossing out the old shoe, may we all do the same.

  • Raechel Logan

    Great post, Geoff. I think the ability to empathize is a great trait to possess, however… can we ever really have true empathy? Everyone experiences things differently, so it’s hard to ever know EXACTLY how somebody else is feeling, though of course we can share in those feelings with them the best way we know how. I think the key, more than empathy, is charity. Not in the, “I pity you so now I will help you” sort of way, but in genuine care and concern for everyone around us and wishing as much for their happiness as we do for our own. And, like you mentioned, I think it’s important that we remember to be charitable towards ourselves once in a while – whether that be through letting things go and forgiving ourselves for our mistakes (instead of dwelling on them like we perfectionists tend to – guilty!) or in remembering our worth and not putting ourselves down. THAT’S the kind of stuff that really would change the world and would get rid of all those dirty shoes! (Or at least, clean them up!)

  • Thanks for that, Raechel! I’ve been focusing on empathy because I don’t think it gets enough play time…but I do like your thoughts about charity. Charity is an active thing…it requires more than just sitting around feeling bad. I’ll think about that a bit and may write a post about it soon! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Thank you very much, Margaret! I appreciate your condolences and I’m sure my family does too.

  • Elizabeth

    I’m sorry to hear about the death of your relative. I think empathy is a great thing to have, and in a project environment it’s especially relevant to project customers. But it’s also important for the team members too. We need to consider that we also work with humans who have other lives apart from the project tasks we assign them, and need to be dealt the same degree of kindness as everyone else. If we throw out our dirty old shoes we can set a better example to project team members.

  • Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth! That’s really my thinking as well. Those dirty old shoes litter project team rooms around the world, and they get in the way of good work. If we can’t pick our own shoes up and throw them out, why should anyone else on the team?

  • A very thoughtful post Geoff, thanks for sharing, and my condolences for your family’s loss. Your old shoe metaphor is excellent. I’d add that we also need to try and purge that part of us that lets us horde old shoes to begin with. Certainly, like old shoes, feelings can become well worn and comfortable, and the thought of changing them is unsettling. Often it takes an event like yours to drive that change. My two brothers were antagonists for over 25 years over some crazy slight until my mom’s illness and passing last year finally made them start to put their differences aside.

    Repairing family ties is a long term project, full of ups and downs, twists and turns, blood and beer (hum, that last might just be me…), but also very satisfying to complete. With your vast PM skills and even greater humanity, you’ll get there.

  • Dad

    Geoff,
    Thank you for this. Sometimes we don’t see others’ shoes for the pile of them in our own closet. I found this article insightful and it brought a new perspective on my own family collection.Good for you.

    Albert

  • You’re welcome. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Very sorry for your family’s loss – but glad that such a great blog could come from it. Thanks again for some great insights. Well stated!

  • Thank you very much for your kind words, Garad! My family appreciates the condolences too. ๐Ÿ™‚

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