Tuesday, August 18, 2015
An Angry Inheritance
Anger is a badge of honor for my father. It is included in his version of what a real man is and I carried it with me. Why was I angry? So many reasons. Righteous anger is being angry at what angers God . We as a society feel pretty sure we have the right to this particular type of anger, but we are usually wrong with this assessment as we are usually wrong about what angers God.
When I was born I looked very much like my father, chubby with short legs. I would love to say I outgrew both of those, but sadly did not. Growing up I tried to be like him, even going so far as to state my desire to be a welder in a sixth grade class report. The very next year when puberty hit, a lot began to change and I realized how unlike him I was. Still I tried to mimic him, to make sure he liked me. Love is unconditional, I thought. Like is a whole different story.
I now realize one of the few traits of his I was able to master was anger. I have the characteristic temper from the Thompson family genes, mostly Irish with a supposed smattering of Native American but not enough to get scholarship money or casino dividends. My temper was held mostly at bay by the guiding hand of my exclusively English and devoutly Christian mother, until I left for college. Once there I began to explore the temper and companion salty language of my father’s people with almost as much passion as I pursued academics and social acceptance. My temper ran parallel to my achievements and both increased at a surprising rate, considering I was a closeted, chubby nerd and life is not an after-school special.
I assumed anger was my inheritance as nothing else in the way of property, money or mixed securities existed. Mixed insecurities I had by the carload, which exacerbated my anger. Often, for me at least, anger had its root in fear. Fear of actually being gay. Fear of being outed. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of rejection by family, friends, fraternity. Fear of overstaying my welcome in any context including friendships, dinner or even talking to my academic advisor. My friends had no clue how often I fretted, worrying any glimpse of the real me would ruin my strategy to become a “regular guy”. Truthfully, my feelings were mostly anticipatory fear which is much more toxic as it is based on imagination not reality. My imagination is strong, y’all, and I can come up with all manner of terrifying scenarios, some of which unfortunately have come true; most, happily, have not.
As this anger slowly seeped into my personality at work, it began to impact my career path. I was known for results. I could walk into a department, assess it fairly quickly and turn it around in a relatively short amount of time. The success was career-enhancing but the psychological toll on some with whom I interacted was an unfortunate side-effect. The casualties left in the wake of my leadership style were simply the costs of being awesome, I felt. I found out later these costs were unnecessary.
God placed into my life two mentors who were brutally honest with me and encouraged anger management counseling. It was marginally helpful from a management perspective but it provided excellent insight to the root of my anger. I tried to heal, turning to God for relief and redemption. I had decided in 2004 to leave behind the “gay” and return to church as I felt I had to choose. When faced with the options of career or eternal damnation, I chose career. Through prayer, support and leadership training I began to make solid progress. I learned the difference between leadership and management. I recognized I had been an occupant of a leadership position, not a true leader. An uncomfortable truth but one I used to better myself. I realized I had placed unrealistic expectations on myself and when I invariably stumbled, I was furious with myself. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I was none too happy about it. The anger I felt at myself was often misread by my peers and subordinates as anger with them. I had been too pre-occupied to notice my effect on them.
Fear of failing at my experiment of being someone other than the white trash person I felt I was, caused disproportionate reactions to minor set-backs. I was promoted from a GS-4 to a GS-14 in seven and a half years but felt I could have done it faster. I wasn’t falling into the typical bad habit of comparing myself to anyone. I was comparing myself to an unattainable ideal and punishing myself for failing to meet this artificial, self-imposed standard.
Servant leadership training taught me to be confident in my abilities and unafraid to fail. Once I started to practice these traits, my sense of calm returned and my anger dwindled. When The Dad moved in with me, I was working to turn around a failing department in a new facility and it was a demanding job on good days. When he would question me about my day and I would talk about encouraging people to excel and coaching them to improve, letting them share their opinions and valuing their perspectives, he would mock me and tell me about “when [I] was a boss…” He only enjoyed the old stories of where I was the governmental equivalent of Charles Bronson. When I would talk of collaborating with a problem employee, he would say, “You’re gonna look weak. They’re gonna fire you” or “I can’t believe you let them get one over on you. I thought you were gonna do something when you became the boss.”
It would be easy to blame his generation but it’s more likely his attempt to pass down the only inheritance he received from his father, angry until his last breath. When he tells me I’ve forgotten where I’m from and who I am, I don’t disagree, but it’s not the way he means it. There are things I retain and cherish like common sense, an appreciation of fried foods and a quick joke. But there are other heirlooms (holding grudges, closed-minded thinking and anticipatory stress) which are best left behind.
I move on quietly, purposefully, attempting to go unnoticed to ensure I leave these permanently behind. I don’t want to look back even though I realize my actions are certain to be misinterpreted. I know this will be part of my legacy and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, but I do know I’m not angry.