Good Grief

I want people to like ME.

That’s what  she said — an employee I supervised about 15 years ago when I was director of an art center. I had discovered my trust in her had been misplaced, and difficulties I was having resulted from the way she was manipulating me and others in order to achieve her agenda. In the process, she was shredding my reputation and my credibility.

Classic example: I would go to the office, and as I walked through the door, she would stop me to say, “The curator wants me to put work by so-and-so in the gift shop, but I just don’t think his work is right for us.” I would answer, “OK, I’ll support your decision.” Then, she would go to the curator and say, “I would be more than happy to put so-and-so’s art work in the gift shop, but Mary says it’s not appropriate for our venue.” Then the curator would come to me — after contacting a couple board members to get their support — and be furious because he had already assured the artist that we would carry his work. I would tell him — and board members when they called to find out what was happening — I was simply supporting the gift shop manager’s decision, and she would coyly say with a smile, “It’s not my place to make those decisions, it’s yours.”

Because she’d been with the organization longer than I had, the board would accept what she said as truth, and chastise me for failing to take responsibility for my actions. While these irritating, frustrating, maddening contretemps were occurring on a too-frequent basis, I was attempting to deal with other organizational challenges. Unfortunately, because the gift shop manager had systematically undermined my credibility with the board, members did not trust my judgment.

When I tried to explain to the gift shop manager what she was doing with her little games, she smiled and said, “But, I want people to like ME. You’re paid to be the bad guy.” I was stunned with that response, because I believe each of us must be responsible  for our own actions. Of course, what I believed or didn’t believe was irrelevant. Within months of that conversation, I was out of a job.

That phrase — I want people to like ME — has haunted me for more than a decade. I would be washing dishes, and find myself arguing with the gift shop manager about that. I would be folding clothes warm and fresh from the dryer, and it would pop into my head, taking the pleasure out of the comfortable, homey task. I would be driving down the highway, gazing at a fieldof harvest-ready corn at dusk and be lifted with joy by the golden glow, only to be smacked down as that phrase ran through my head.

And, I have hated myself for being so hard-hearted and unforgiving. I profess to be a Christian. I profess to follow the risen Christ whose gospel advocates forgiveness. I pray the Lord’s prayer daily — “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Why did this comment come back to me unbidden over and over?

Why was I stuck there? I’ve had a couple other unpleasant job situations since then; why did that one stick with me when I’ve been able to move past the others, when I’ve been able to see the blessings of open doors created in the other difficult situations?

A couple weeks ago, an answer spontaneously came to me: because I was stuck in grief.

In 1989, I visited the Chicago Institute of Art for the first time. While there, I had an epiphany: if I did not create art, my life would be wasted. I’d been painting for about 10 years by that time, primarily for personal pleasure. I knew as I looked at Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV” that I needed to pursue an art career seriously.

I returned to South Dakota, conducted research in order to determine how to proceed, and set goals for my career. Within a year, I had achieved my one-year, three-year and five-year goals. During the following years, I had a number of solo exhibits, had work included in several touring exhibits and saw some of my work accessioned into museum collections. Equally as important, my social circle was primarily comprised of fellow artists.

When the gift shop manager — the same individual who later shredded my professional reputation — began to nag me about becoming director of  the art center, I was positioned to support myself as a practicing artist. I had just received a three-year grant which would have made it unnecessary for me to work beyond doing some residencies in area schools. I could have immersed myself in art rather than balancing an art career with another job in order to pay bills.

By the time I was fired and escorted from the art center by two board members, all of that had been destroyed. Only a couple friendships survived, and I was so burned out that I didn’t paint again for years. When I did begin to paint again, I made no effort to exhibit my work. I didn’t have the energy — or courage — to begin again. I had only to attend a couple art events, and have former friends turn their backs on me rather than include  me in conversations, to see how difficult it would be. I didn’t have the heart for it.

What I did not realize for a very long time was that I needed to grieve that ending, the death of my dream, of what I believed to be my life’s work. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed in her book ON DEATH AND DYING, that there are five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I came to realize that I have not been hard-hearted or unforgiving during the past 15 years; I’ve been stuck in the anger stage of grief — with short forays into bargaining.

I wish this realization had released me to move immediately to acceptance, but it hasn’t. Instead, I find myself crying about just about everything these days, and thanking God for releasing me to move beyond the subconscious anger which has plagued me for years. I know these tears will lead to acceptance and healing — and maybe create in me a place for a new dream. Only God knows.

Only God knows — and I am willing to wait on him.

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