More than I want to admit, to get what I want I often have to do what I don’t want. It seems like a hard teaching and I wish it didn’t ring true to me. But it does and it’s what I believe, like it or not.
I’m a counselor. I get paid to listen and ask questions. I do my best work when I speak with a word, phrase or short sentence. Speaking paragraphs is my own professional taboo. I love my world of listening, understanding and paraphrasing where I reflect my client’s percolated emotions, thoughts, words, and gestures. But to do my job as a listener in private, I’ve been challenged to do something that I hated: speaking in public.
I was an overweight kid and felt deeply ashamed of my body by the time I was six. Maybe that has something to do with my past of hating public speaking. I loathed it, dreaded it, avoided it and every time I did it, I promised myself I’d never do it again. I had a whole litany of misery: a burning neck whenever a grade school teacher inquisitively looked my way, piano recitals, a seventh grade presentation on South Africa’s gold mines, and an eighth grade talk about sharks, skates and rays. On and on it goes through high school and college, when one day I stood to give a speech in class and a girl whispered to her friend, “Wow! Look how red he’s turning.”
But one day my boss precipitated a moment of decision: If I wanted to keep a job I loved as a university counselor in Texas, I would be required to regularly engage students through public speaking. It was a deplorable part of the job description. I had to lecture if I wanted to counsel. And so I did.
Eight years later—after a mountain range of anxiety had been leveled through repeated, controlled exposure to public speaking—my father-in-law asked me, four days before he died, to conduct his graveside funeral. I didn’t want to do it but I did want to help him feel peaceful during his last days on earth. But more than that, I got caught up in the spirit of his children’s heroic measures to do absolutely everything they could to make him comfortable as his life diminished into death.
“Bill,” I said, “I’m fool enough to officiate your graveside service if you’re fool enough to ask an Okie to do it.”
He quietly spoke his blessing, “If that Okie is you, then I am.”
Gratitude sustained me as I prepared the ceremony. The burial day was surreal and the service went fine. It was the most important speaking engagement of my life. And now, just two weeks after it’s over, I hope to never have a talk as important again.
Whether it’s keeping a job I love or doing my part in honoring the life of a beloved father-in-law, it boils down to the same thing, to have what I want I often have to do what I don’t want.
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