After two years of studying plant and soil sciences, my favorite professor, Dr. Barker, offered me a job on the University of Massachusetts farm. Whereas my previous jobs had been things like bagging groceries and washing dishes, this was the first time I was getting paid to do something I was interested in, and under the supervision of someone I looked up to.
I was nervous when I showed up at Bowditch Hall on my first day. Dr. Barker, a white-haired man with a country drawl, introduced me to his assistant, Kathy. Then he handed me the keys to a faded old, blue truck and asked me, “Ever driven a three-on-the-tree?” I had never driven any kind of truck before, much less one with the gearshift on the steering column, but I learned quickly as I drove the three of us – with lots of jerking and stalling – out to the farm.
Standing at the edge of a freshly plowed field, Dr. Barker explained that we were going to use stakes and twine to mark out rows for planting seeds. Kathy and I got to work while he watched. The only trouble was, while I had stakes, a mallet, and a ball of twine, I didn’t have anything to cut the twine with. I thought maybe I had spaced out when someone explained where to find a knife or scissors. Or maybe the professor had told me to bring my own knife and I had forgotten. I was too uncomfortable to say anything.
Wondering if there was some way I could proceed with my task without a cutting tool, I pounded the first stake into the ground. I tied one end of the twine around it, walked the length of the field, pounded in another stake, wrapped the twine around that stake, pulled it taut, and then I just squatted there for a few moments. I considered trying to gnaw through it with my teeth, but dismissed the idea as totally unprofessional. Finally, at the risk of appearing unprepared, I called out to Kathy, who was a dozen paces away, “Do you have a knife?”
“Huh?” she turned around and squinted at me in the bright sun. “Oh.” She ambled over, fished around in her pocket, and passed me a pink disposable lighter.
I interpreted this unexpected response to mean, “I don’t have a knife, but I can see what you need there. You’re going to have to burn through the twine with this. At the ends of every row.” She gave me the lighter in such a matter-of-fact way that I thought it would be too weird to ask for a different explanation.
So, feeling like I didn’t have enough hands, I held the twine straight out from the stake, positioned the flame beneath it, and tried to shield it from the wind with my leg. It blew out a couple times, but I eventually managed to burn through it. Meanwhile Dr. Barker had wandered over to observe me and remarked, “That is the strangest way of doing that I have ever seen.”
“Um. I didn’t have a knife,” I said sheepishly.
“Well, I’ve got a knife you can use.”
“Me too,” offered Kathy.
And that’s how, on the first day of my first important job, I believed I must have convinced my boss that I was an absolute idiot. By the way, if you’re wondering why Kathy handed me that lighter, these were the days when smoking was still quite common. She was a smoker and must have thought I said, “Do you have a light?”
The whole thing turned out to be a good lesson for me. By avoiding an uncomfortable conversation, I ended up in even more discomfort.
I resolved to speak up and break through the tension of misunderstanding in the future. I can’t say I’ve always done this, because it takes bravery, and sometimes I chose to stay in my (dis-)comfort zone. But I can say that I’ve never regretted it. Usually there’s an immediate diffusion of tension, and even when there isn’t, at least the truth is out and there’s an opening for resolution. This is especially true when we bring an attitude of curiosity and aim to understand the other person.
Is there anywhere in your life where you’ve left something unsaid because of your resistance to the discomfort of speaking those words and the feelings that may follow? I want to challenge you to make a communication this week that takes you a bit outside your comfort zone. Even if you have to say, “I’m really nervous about saying this” or you have to hold a friend’s hand while doing it, it’s worth it.