A Few Kind Words01 May 2012
“What I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been deftly accomplished with but a few kind words.” Terry Dobson in Aikido Surprise
I’ve been dumped.
What follows is an attempt, mostly for my own benefit, to process the grievance of being professionally exploited. I shan’t name names, that would be crass, but do bear in mind that what I express here will be undoubtedly coloured by a reactionary bias.
Having worked for four months in an office, with some of the finest talent in Bristol, I was, without warning, in the cold and rain and at 5pm in the day, unceremoniously informed that I needn’t come in again. There are always two sides to a story and of course I’ll tell you that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t done anything wrong, it was merely that they’d found better people for the job. I was on a probationary freelance agreement, so under the strict letter of the law no offences were made.
Reflecting on it the day after, I recollected an execution scene from one of my favourite films. Like so many of the Coen brother’s creations, Miller’s Crossing delivers a refreshingly unexpected and chillingly nuanced portrayal of the darker sides of humanity. The narrative hinges on a crossing, both geographically - Miller’s Crossing is a secluded wooded area where key scenes occur - and psychologically in terms of Tom, the protagonist, who battles, but ultimately capitulates to, the malevolent forces inside him. Enclosed by the benevolent forest foliage of Miller’s Crossing Tom is aiming his gun at the head of Bernie, who’s execution will prove Tom’s loyalty to Caspar, the leader of Tom’s side in the mafia wars within which he has become embroiled. Bernie is beside himself with fear, but manages to wrench from his awful sobs and tears the plea, “Look into your heart Tom, look into your heart”. The tension is horrendous, so Tom’s decision to free Bernie is massively relieving. We are setup to believe that Tom’s crossing will be from the insidious violence of a mafia culture to the liberation of an ethically-informed life.
What constitutes the way of the mafia is not hard and fast, it lies on a spectrum who’s lesser extreme extends into the humbler organisations and institutions we collectively champion and celebrate. Even in our immediate family we’re confronted with dilemmas of loyalty, bartering in the currency of compliments, gossip and secrecy. It’s why so many of us can be so readily engaged in the stories of mafia life, it resonates. We know what the good and honourable course of action is but we’re tempted by quick fixes and shortcuts.
The world of business, at least at a conventional level, does not clothe itself in the garments of the mafia wardrobe, however it does require a certain level of forthrightness, assertiveness and even coldness. ‘Never mix business and pleasure’, we often hear, because one day you may need to negotiate a price on your personal friendships. Yet at the same time, trust and loyalty are central to successfully growing in your market. In the search for making the best contacts and scoring the biggest deals we might consider compromising our civilian principles in order to rise up the ladder of reputation. Although to a grotesquely extreme extent, this is surely what passes through Tom’s head as he points his gun at Bernie.
So Tom strikes a bargain, Bernie must leave and never be seen again. We start sympathising with Tom, he’s taken the first step in doing the right thing. But later Bernie returns, he couldn’t keep away and eventually his and Tom’s paths cross again. The exact same encounter reoccurs, Tom aiming his barrel at Bernie, who sobs, “Look into your heart Tom, look into your heart”. When Tom pulls the trigger you realise how much you’ve been spoon-fed by the rest of prevailing cinematic narrative, the Coen brothers have played with us, Tom didn’t have a heart, he was a coward. Tom is actually a pitiful character unable to imagine anything other than the lowest common denominator of a response to his predicament. Real life rarely has Hollywood endings.
How do we imagine a more creative response? Business may well be business, but are the cut-throat cliches of collateral damage really our only options? Can we stand on our own two feet and negotiate the dilemmas of life in a way that both solves hard-edged priorities and retains our integrity. Terry Dobson tells a story about a turning point in his life called ‘Aikido Surprise’, you can read his essay in full here. The particular event he recounts happens on a train in Japan at the point in Terry’s Aikido training where he is aching to try out his skills in real combat. There is a drunken man on this train being verbally and physically abusive, Terry stands up and makes it perfectly clear that he would like to intervene, by puckering his lips and blowing him an insolent kiss. But just at the moment when the drunk was to exercise his inevitable retaliation, an elderly man in his seventies calls out with a beaming smile, then kindly and simply engages the drunk in small talk. Soon, the drunk his crying in the old man’s lap having opened up to the recent death of his wife. This is Terry’s lesson, “what I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been deftly accomplished with but a few kind words.”
Often that which produces the most brutally effective solution need not in itself be brutal.