When my middle son, then 17, joined the army, he was shipped to boot camp in South Carolina. A few weeks later I received his first letter, and in that letter was an anecdote for the ages.
Aaron told the story of raising his hand to ask a question. The drill sergeant growled back, “The next time you have a question, private, why don’t you open your mouth and put a shovel-full of [expletive] in it.”
Then the sergeant made my boy do pushups. Which, according to Aaron, he couldn’t do, because he was laughing so hard.
I could picture it: My boy’s shoulders collapsing with the energy of his laughter, helpless to make his muscles cooperate.
I thought about it for a long time. I wondered how I, Mister Ultradecorum and Uber-sensitive, could have possibly raised a young man that could ‘roll’ so effortlessly through such a vile, verbal assault. I assure you that no one has ever spoken to him that way in my house.
When he returned home, I asked him about it.
Aaron was matter-of-fact. “It’s not personal, papa. My drill sergeants wanted the best out of me.”
For a long while, all I could think about is how different are my son and I. Mean people don’t inspire me. I hate bullies. As a junior varsity football player, I missed a tackle in practice. My coach bellowed across the field, “Kalas! You big [expletive]!” My face burned with humiliation and rage. In the next several plays from scrimmage, I was a one-man wrecking crew, blowing through blocks, sacking the quarterback and planting would-be ball carriers into the turf.
Then I quit the team. For about an hour, anyway, until my coach came over and apologized.
But today I no longer believe I’m always correct about ‘mean.’ Context is everything. More to the point, the relationship is everything. If the relationship is secure, if I respect you and admire you and want/need to learn from you, if I trust that you are invested in the best of me … well, then suddenly I DON’T require that you are in every case gentle and kind. I can hear the scalpel edge of fierce, harsh truth.
My college basketball coach could shout, “Steven, get your head out of your [backside],” and I would be inspired. My father would shout, “Steven, get your head out of your [backside],” and I would want to shrivel up and die.
The difference in those relationships is trust. Simple as that.
Makes me think of something I once said in a sermon: God and the devil will often tell us the exact same truth. But their respective motives for telling you this truth will be radically different.
So, while I have never had a drill sergeant, ‘mean’ has worked for me a few times.
I think of Ruth, my mentor in graduate school. On the bottom of my paper she wrote, “This paper is so poorly written, I have trouble judging its contents.” And when I went to confront her with my indignation, she shrugged and said with dripping irony, “My mistake. I thought you wanted a career as a professional communicator.”
And suddenly I wasn’t offended. I didn’t feel attacked; I felt admired. Respected. I went home and learned the craft of writing.
Helen Palmer is an internationally known teacher of the Enneagram. In front of 35 people she admonished me, in a tone I recall from, say, my third-grade teacher: “Steven, this incessant self-deprecation is adorable to a point! And then it just gets in the way!”
Yikes. I was startled, yes. Humbled and somewhat embarrassed, yes. But the overriding feeling was inspiration. Helen told me the unvarnished truth. And in that instant I knew I’d been respected. Not attacked. Because one of the fundamental ways we respect those we care about is by relentlessly expecting the best from them.
I have a colleague and friend. She is the best therapist I know. She teases me about her being “meaner” than me as a therapist. More willing to sacrifice decorum and empathic tones for radical confrontation of her patients. Not everyone can handle it. Those who can are blessed to know her.
My grandmother used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Well, yes. But, sometimes we need a dose of vinegar to chase away the pesky flies of ego and self-deceit.
Who are the people in your life from whom you can welcome vinegar?
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.