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Difficult People and (sometimes) Dangerous Animals | An Unpleasant Commonality

I’m no Jeff Corwin, Nick Baker, or Jack Hanna, but twice in April 2010, I easily could have met as untimely an end as the famous Australian “Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin.  Cause of death would not have been stingray barb, but rather, clawed-paw, teeth, tusk, foot (large), and crushing body weight of either a mature male lion (450+lbs), or an “ele” (pronounced “eli”), of which the Kruger National Park describe the average weight as “two mini-buses full of people (6 tonnes).”

The incidents occurred at Klaserie, a 60,000 hectare, privately owned reserve, appended as it were to Kruger with unrestricted animal migration.

Thursday morning began with a visit from the game warden’s wife and daughter, who drove the few kilometers off the main road to our friends’ camp in order to fetch their daughter.  The two girls were taking horseback riding lessons in Hoedspruit, the nearest town.  Prior to leaving, she informed Jonathan of a sighting of two large male lions feeding on a fresh buffalo kill, just off the Reserve’s main road.

After they departed, Jonathan said to Iain (another long-time friend) and me, “Shall we?”  This is man-talk for “Chaps, are you ready to walkabout and look for those lions?!”

Jonathan and I on one of our many walkabouts.

Jonathan and I on one of our many walkabouts.

Over-enthusiastically we climbed into the Land Cruiser (LC), not pausing to consider any variety of “what if” scenarios.

We had one rifle between us, which Jonathan as resident owner at Klaserie took responsibility of, several pairs of cameras and binoculars, and a few pocket knives, which, I assume we somehow thought might be of use to clean any animal aggressor’s toe nails or teeth while it was busy inflicting bodily harm on us.

As to the lone rifle, I was sure of my own abilities – having successfully shot a 6′ reared up and ready to strike cobra in the head – but in all the years I’ve walked-about with Jonathan at Klaserie, I’ve simply trusted that his previous army experience made him a crack shot at any close in and charging animal.

Peter holding the cobra I shot at our home in Musoma, TZ

Peter holding the cobra I shot at our home in Musoma, TZ

Based on the friend’s description, Jonathan knew exactly where to drive and park the LC so as to be downwind of the lions.  We disembarked and began a slow, quiet, single-file walk through the thick bushveld in search of “our lions,” with Jonathan in front (of course), me in the middle and Iain bringing up the rear.  As we painstakingly descended the knoll where the LC remained, we soon came across the buffalo victim’s detached tail – the first sign that we were on the right trail.  A short while later we came on fresh lion scat – poop for you unfamiliar with the term.

What happened next is a jumbled blur of remembrances.  I recall how quiet and still the surrounding bush had become.  At this point we were almost creeping through the thick brush.  I was looking down for telltale sign of lions when Jonathan whisper-shouted, “LION!!!”

A male lion feeding on a wildebeest, in a dense bush similar to the Klaserie lions.

Male lion feeding on a wildebeest in a dense bush similar to the one hiding the two Klaserie lions.

My head whipped up to see a flurry of lion motion beneath a large bush a mere 35 meters in front of us.  Engrossed in their buffalo, we evidently startled them as much as they us.  One lion bolted from the rear of the bush, but the other charged over the buffalo and towards us, his mane fanned back as if he had it sticking out the window of a car going 100 km/h, and I remember the eyes – eerily and menacingly yellow.  After only a few forward strides, the lion fortunately did a sharp 90-degree turn to the right, kicking up early morning dust, disappearing into the bush and leaving us walkabouters with elevated testosterone and heart rate levels.

Charging lion, similar to the one that came toward us.

Charging lion, similar to the one that came toward us.

This lion encounter did little more than provide us with an exciting story to tell our families back at camp over a late breakfast, and then again in the evening while nursing drinks around the campfire.  Little did I know that tomorrow’s (Friday) elephant encounter would put this in the small potatoes category.

Growing up my family always loved vacationing in East African national parks. Getting charged by elephants, rhinos or buffalos was always part of the “fun” – only because they were controlled provocations.  On many occasions we were the hecklers and agitators, who would make respective animal sounds in an effort to get them to come for us. On these occasions we always had a clear and fast getaway, so barring colossal vehicle malfunction, there was little-to-no risk.  Friday’s incident, however, induced restless sleep for weeks after the incident.

It was our last day at Klaserie, with a Saturday departure.  Mid-afternoon my wife Ana, middle daughter Christina and I left camp in the LC.  I drove and they sat on the cushioned benches in the open back.  For more than an hour we inched through Klaserie’s bush only to see the “usual” – giraffe, impala, zebra, kudu, et cetera.  As the afternoon sun reached its golden peak, we crossed the river and were heading back to camp from the backside, along a track where several days previously elephants had knocked several small trees down, forcing the track to detour.

Me clearing a Klaserie track

Me clearing a Klaserie track

Cleaning up after Klaserie elephants.

Cleaning up after Klaserie elephants.

As we came across fresh elephant spoor, including young ones, I recall we were growing hungry and ready for a hot shower.  A few kilometers further on the track skirted a small and densely vegetated hill.  I saw an ele feeding on the right side of the track about 100 meters ahead.  I immediately stopped the LC.  My attention was focused forward, when suddenly my wife leaned into the open driver’s side window, pounded on the roof of the LC with her hand, and shouted, “GO, GO, GO!!!!!”  My head whipped from noon to almost 3-o’clock where she was frantically pointing.  Silently but with great speed an ele was bearing down on us, pushing through brush with ease.

Frequently the LC’s side mirrors were folded in.  For some unknown but grateful reason they had been repositioned that afternoon.  I had a split second to decide what to do. Going forward was not an option due to elephants in the road. I couldn’t veer off left or right due to thick brush, plus many LC-disabling rocks.  Reverse was my only option.  I quickly shifted into reverse and off we shot with the ele in fast and persistent pursuit.

Somehow I managed to keep us and the LC on the narrow and winding bush track while reversing at a speed of near 70 km/h for upwards of 175 meters.  The ele eventually came onto the track in her pursuit of us.  I recall a moment frozen in time, where my head was fanning left to right for rearview mirror guidance, plus fleetingly glancing at center mirror to ensure my family were still in the back, and also glancing forward to our danger, thinking how IMMENSE and NEAR the ele looked as she bore down on us, and wondering HOW LONG and FAR are you going to pursue us?

This close encounter ele photo taken in Pilanesberg gives you some perspective to our BIG & threatening the charging ele was.

Close encounter ele photo taken in Pilanesberg gives you some perspective to how BIG & threatening the charging ele was.

As I was reversing I remembered the downed trees and how impossible it would be to quickly maneuver them.  Fortunately, just as we were approaching them, the ele pulled up and violently shook her head repeatedly as a sendoff.  We did a quick about-turn and returned to camp the long way.

One of two Reserve vehicles destroyed by the ele.  Note the tusk insertion on the driver's side door.

One of two Reserve vehicles destroyed by the ele. Note the tusk insertion on the driver’s side door.

We three got the prize for “first encounter” with this rogue ele.  As Jonathan later told me, she went on to attack and destroy two camp vehicles, plus pinned a game garden to the ground during a morning walkabout with a group of tourists.  She was subsequently destroyed. Christina remembers Ana telling her in that moment of initial charge, “Get down, get down!” And then while they were both huddling under the rear seat, Ana telling her, “I just want you to know that I love you!”  That initial night and several subsequent ones I woke up perspiring, having relived through dreams our close call.

A commonality of dangerous animals and difficult people?  

In 2011 a former colleague shared a Robert Sutton book with me, which at the time we both personally could commiserate with victims of the book’s main character type – the asshole (The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t).  Sutton is a professor at Sanford University, and “The No A**hole Rule” originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.  The book’s essence is that bullying and destructive characters damage fellow human beings and undermine organizational performance, and how to either restrict, reform, repel (or avoid) such individuals from organizations.

Unless we’re dishonest or blind to our own idiosyncrasies, each of us have at one time or another acted in a donkey-hole-kind-of-a-way toward another person(s). Regrettably too many people – mostly those with at least a modicum of positional or special skills power – have perfected this destructive “art” form.  Such individuals are adept at creating an organizational culture of fear and of negatively affecting the motivation, energy, productivity and retention of employees.

Like our elephant, some individuals develop a propensity for bullying behavior, and this for no evident reason.  They are “set-off” by the most random and insignificant of reasons.  Yet once agitated they possess the requisite power to make life insufferable for you, your family, and/or colleagues.  The individual likely has some invisible and precipitating pain source, but in the case of rogue animals, this isn’t discovered until after the animal is destroyed.

With “human aggressors,” males particularly, the precipitating pain could be something as “trivial” and personal as a struggling relationship, coupled with long periods of no sex (There’s nothing like protracted periods of no sex to make men irritable!).  Or, donkey-hole behavior could be symptomatic of far greater, deep-seated traumas or psychosis.

When confronted by aggressive human behavior, the safest first response is retreat.  This allows you to live and respond another day.  From the relative safety of distance you then have the freedom of choice.  You can choose to accept and live with the however-frequent blow-ups, or reframe hostile encounters with the truth that you’re not the problem or its cause – it’s him.  Alternatively you might avoid all future encounters, waiting patiently instead until his destructive social behavior unseats him from power.  Finally, you can simply pack your office and leave in search of a corporate climate like Google that has a hardwired philosophy of “Do no evil!”  

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On Vulnerability and Disengagement

My impetus for blogging about vulnerability and disengagement came from reading Brene’ Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Brown, a Houston-based researcher, catapulted to public awareness as a TED speaker.  Daring Greatly advocates having the courage to live vulnerable lives.

I reflect briefly on two personal examples of vulnerability: Place and space vulnerability. Relational vulnerability.

First, a definition . . . Vulnerability is a state of being open, susceptible and exposed to pain or suffering.

eyevulnerable

Vulnerability is paradoxical, in that risking a state of being vulnerable is a prerequisite to growth and intimacy and even life, as for example chemistry, anatomy, physiology and microbiology are prerequisites for most medical science programs.

Vulnerability assumes many forms and degrees of severity, including these few minor ones of mine from this week: Buying Tampax Pearl “super” and “regular” at Costco for the women in my life.  Being shown three close-up photographs of a tuxedo cat’s obstructed anus by a AT&T repair technician after I innocently asked him during a home visit to repair our internet connection what kind of cat he had, and he felt obligated to “show-tell” me more than I cared to know!

risk&reward

Vulnerability occurs by at least one of three means: 1) a voluntary and intentional choice (e.g., me buying a typically feminine product), 2) an imposed duty  (e.g., a course requirement to do or visit something unfamiliar, like the Jain temple below), or 3) an unforeseen consequence of one’s words or actions (e.g., being shown the tuxedo cat photos).  Courage and risk are not only common to all three, but prerequisites to vulnerability’s rewards.

A light, comical example: At some point in my marriage I took a risk and chose to buy my wife an outfit of clothes.  It was a vulnerable, risky and spur of the moment act because it’s a typically feminine versus manly thing to do, plus, she might have taken exception to or misinterpreted my act and/or what I bought her.  Yet, having acted despite the risk, I was and continue to be rewarded by her: liking most everything I buy; I get all the compliments indirectly from her friends, plus, it’s fun to hear the standard I’ve now created for their husbands and boyfriends once they hear I bought all my wife’s outfits; and, finally, I get to “dress her hot.”  Hah!

My wife wearing & receiving "my clothing line."

My wife wearing & receiving “my clothing line.”

My first significant personal experience with vulnerability occurred during postgraduate studies in world religions.  I entered the program from a conservative upbringing, similar it seems to Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil, who described his early formative “context of meaning” as Southern Baptist, but who today – like me – has journeyed far from that without being merely reactionary.

My belief structure and self-identity leading up to graduate studies was evangelical, in so far as that communicates a consciousness and spirituality overly concerned with not only “how to get into,” but also “who’s in and who’s out” of heaven/eternity.  Ultimately, I believe, it’s a frail and insecure faith.  It’s a faith orientation rabbi David Hartman aptly observed about, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

It’s a faith still reflective of, if not mired in its Puritan roots, especially its perception of God:  loving, yes, but also capricious and punitive.  To illustrate using a common African image  – It views eternal security from the fearful perspective of an infant having of necessity to cling to its mother’s neck lest it fall off, rather than seeing the mother’s anxious love as all-embracing and anxious to ensure, herself, that her child doesn’t fall and injure itself.

My wife with our youngest.

My wife with our youngest.

My studies program required that I engage first-hand with cultural and religious difference.  So, for example, instead of learning about Jains from a disengaged and purely theoretical vantage point (books and lecture), I engaged in a year-long participation and engaged study of a Jain community in Richardson, Texas, with no conscious intention other than to experience and understand a people and faith different from my own.  Phenomenology is the term that describes this approach to study.  In the so-called Bible Belt of the southern United States, learning about the religious and cultural “different other” more often than not, it seems, focuses on identifying and emphasizing cultural and religious differences so as to more effectively proselytize.

Indiareligions

Recalling that first Sunday in 2000, twelve years later, stirs up vulnerable feelings of discomfiture. What would “their” place of worship look like?  Am I appropriately dressed?  Has everyone removed their shoes outside the front door, or only some people?  Should I?  Will my shoes be here when I leave?  What kind of reception awaits me as a guest, a white face among likely all brown?  How should I greet them?  Do I greet the men differently than the women? What will “their” order of worship be?  Will I be expected to participate in everything?  Would I even be allowed to?  Will someone be available to explain things?

Similar fears and imagined antagonisms occurred during my trans-Atlantic flight the following year to Geneva, Switzerland, and seminar attendance at the World Council of Churches’ Bossey Ecumenical Institute.  My wife and I laugh now, but as a grown man at 33 years of age, I admit I was emotionally distraught when I “called back home” after arrival and check-in at Bossey.  Everything was threatening, but especially the religious and cultural “different others,” including I came to find out, people who were either gays, themselves, or who had no theological or moral problem with gayness (understand this was my feeling then, not now).

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Over the course of three weeks we participants from many parts of the globe and varying faith and no faith backgrounds engaged each other in sustained conversation and shared experiences.  We ate, laughed, traveled by bus, cried and shared stories.  I still remember the story one Sri Lankan participant shared during morning devotion.  He was attempting to illustrate what it was like to live as a person from a non-super power, colonized population, where local “history” is interpreted and communicated from the victor’s perspective.  In the story, a student asks his teacher, “Ma’am, if the lion is the king of the jungle, why is it that the hunter always wins?”  His wise teacher thought, then replied, “That’s only how it seems on the surface and for the moment, until which time as the lion has his opportunity to tell his side of the story.”

As a Norwegian seminar colleague shared with me as we sat with a glass of wine looking out over Lake Geneva – “Scott, I feel like we’ve done a lot of deconstruction (of our respective faith and cultural traditions, plus years of acquired book learning), yet very little reconstruction.”  I think that’s a lot of what a vibrant, maturing vulnerability entails.  It requires, as it were, unlearning or giving up for a time mono-cycling, so as to learn how to share in riding tandem.

Vulnerability isn’t only important for overcoming our rootedness to place and space (our proverbial “bubble”), but also in building and nurturing relationships.

The most vulnerable of all relationships

The most vulnerable of all relationships

Several months ago I responded to a Harvard Business Review article entitled “We Approach Diversity the Wrong Way” by Liz Ryan, in which she advocated for “MoCo” (more conversations – that is, more vulnerable and candid sharing with each other about stereotypical and prejudicial perceptions and attitudes acquired over the years toward each other; not less) in addressing problems related to diversity. I wrote:

“I appreciate this corrective perspective, especially helping people learn to talk about the ‘sticky human stuff’ by MoCo – more conversation. I recall a conversation a small group of us (whites) had with black colleagues in South Africa years ago – just barely, if yet democratic South Africa. We came together with our culturally acquired stereotypes to discuss a joint work project.  The lingering positive effect and lesson for me was the ‘real conversation’ that transacted, which affected positively on work and interpersonal relationships.  I recall a black colleague sharing, ‘When we see a white person approaching our house we immediately ask ourselves, ‘What is he coming here to ask us to do?’ This man’s comment immediately hit home to me for the truth it was.  I, in turn, candidly replied, When we see a black man coming to our homes, we tend to ask, ‘I wonder what he’s coming to ask for?’  This rare ‘MoCo moment’ was priceless and helped establish trust between people in a new post-racial society by partially clearing the underbrush.”

I resonate with Brown’s observation that while “betrayal” is most often associated with partner/spousal cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, and failure to defend a friend against false accusation, in actuality a more “insidious” and corrosive of trust betrayal is disengagement.

Disengaged?

Disengagement is when one or more parties in a relationship stop making effort and fighting for the relationship, stop paying attention, stop investing time, and stop caring.  Disengagement is the precursor, the underlying condition prior to cheating, lying, abandoning, et cetera.

Illustrative of disengagement is a funny and effective South African Tedelex advertisement.  A husband is slouching on a sofa watching Saturday sports on the “telly” (English for TV). The viewer is led to believe the husband’s crime is neglecting and disengaging completely from wife and marriage.  The wife does several walk-bys the TV trying to get his attention, before resorting to one final and desperate measure.  On the final walk-by she wears nothing but a bathrobe.  She stops mid-center of the TV, turns toward her husband, flashes open her robe, then closes the robe and walks away.  Only then does the husband take quick and eager cognizance of his wife and gets up from the sofa, conveying the message that only one thing possesses the potency to lure men away from their sports – sex.

Seldom, of course, is relational disengagement quite so humorous.  The neglected child, the struggling single parent, the unemployed, the poor, the immigrant, the soldier, the elderly – to name only a few – feel disengagement acutely. Disengagement from friends, church members, family, neighbors, former colleagues is exacerbated when combined with unwelcome, yet, inevitable attending self-shame: a sense of failure, inadequacy and not measuring up, not being good enough.  This is why Brown includes a section in Daring Greatly on “shame resilience.”

Thinking back on a few close friendships lost, as well as many marital separations of friends and family members, I wonder how many of those relationships might still be intact today if either one or both parties had, out of respect for the other and the relationship, resolutely refused to disengage time, attention, effort and caring?

In 2013 my wife and I will celebrate our 28th anniversary.  I credit her for demonstrating and teaching me the importance of engagement.  She (more than I can be credited with) did this through stubborn insistence that we talk through our “everythings” – and I do mean everything, including feelings and insecurities, and the secrets and insecurities of men and maleness, or women and femaleness. Difficult as it is on some days to see or acknowledge, our marriage and family is worth fighting for relative to “anything else out there on the market”.  Brene’ Brown’s importance was in reminding me of the dangers of disengagement and the imperative even for macho men to exercise courage in practicing vulnerability.

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