Keeping It Real

September 22, 2009

I smiled listening to Michael Jordan honor his beloved sister and brothers as some of his valuable opponents when composing last week’s post. I get it; when I wrote The Way of Conflict, I began the introduction by telling the story of how I grew up fighting with my three sisters.

These are three of the dearest people in my life. They are also my walking truth serum. I know within days of exposure, I’ll be required to fess up to what’s working me internally. Over the years, I’ve come to trust their uncanny abilities to make me come clean and have a healthy respect for this power. I love to be with each of them, but know that seeing them always brings some level of reckoning.

For some, old friends might provide a similar experience. They’ve known you too long and you have too much in common to be able to pretend your insecurities or struggles don’t exist. We can tuck them away for most of the world, but there are those souls that keep us honest.

Reading about indigenous cultures I notice that community members are sometimes assigned this truth serum role as a specific job. In the Dagara tribe in Africa you are chosen by the year of your birth to be a community jester or a “nature person.” Nature people are expected to tease you or to give you grief if you are putting on airs. When a nature person shows up at your door, know that you are going to get a work out…it’s their job.

Some Native American traditions explain that this role provides “coyote energy,” seeing this animal as the trickster whose role it is to keep us real. In other traditions it is the ritual clown who makes fun of those trying to pretend that there are above all the messiness of life. Their universal role is to humble us.

Humility means to be “of the earth.” Not less than another, and definitely not higher, but instead that we are all essentially the same. Important souls around the world remind us that as much as we’d like to ignore it, we are human just like everyone else in our community. We all make mistakes, fear death and have physical urges that can control us. We are imperfect and yet valuable in our own right.

I notice that within my sisterhood, we seem to call out behavior that is outside of our best and brightest. My siblings give me grief about eating ice cream out of the container (I know it’s gross), but also none will put up with self-depreciating talk. It’s in that fact that I trust; they see my potential and can get quite peeved when I miss the mark.

Historically we are told this was the role of the court jester. I know how easy it is to delude myself into thinking that my actions make sense and thus appreciate the idea that wise royalty knew that you must have someone checking your work. Too much pride or bravado needs loving critics.

Last weekend I had the rare opportunity to spend time with all three sisters and mom in Yosemite. On Saturday, twice driving back to a cabin we were renting, we saw a cute young coyote cross the road. Rare to see a coyote in Montana in broad daylight, I was impressed to see him in California hanging near the road hours apart. It took until one sister said, “I love each of you, but being all together isn’t always easy,” for me to giggle at the irony. Adding the citings, she was right; there was lots of “coyote energy.” Yet, like after working with a great personal trainer or coach, this week I now have a better sense of who I am, where I stand and what I need to work on. From the nudging and prodding I hope to be better, brighter and more real…and curtail double dipping in the Haagen Daz container.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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