Big men do cry – and it saves lives

Offshore_oil_drilling_inspection

No man is an island

We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really.

-Roger Fox, son of Rick Fox, asset manager for Shell’s Ursa deep-water oil rig

Though much has changed in recent times, the message that “boys don’t cry” is still powerful in the lives of men. But in a story reported by Invisibilia, some of the toughest men of all – oil rig workers – received an intensive course in vulnerability. The fascinating part is why.

Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant, teamed up with Rick Fox, an asset leader for a deep water rig for Shell, to get the men that would work there in better touch with their feelings. As the men – and therefore the company culture – transformed, Shell’s accident rate dropped by 84%.

As Nuer had predicted, training these men to be open and vulnerable helped them communicate better, ask for help more often, and not try to do things alone out of pride or over-inflated self-reliance. “Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,'” says Robin Ely, who wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. “That alone is about being vulnerable.”

The process was far from painless. I was deeply moved reading about these men’s experiences – the toughness that was instilled in them, the hardships they experienced growing up, and the ways this work transformed their relationship with their families and with themselves.

Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son’s terminal illness. “I was weeping like a baby,” he says. “And nobody ever come to me and said, ‘Aw, you big crybaby.’ “

Fox himself transformed his relationship with his son, Roger, before putting Nuer’s work into motion with his staff.

I’m so grateful my son did not have to wait till he was 40-something years old to have the experience of being able to question his own habits and his own way of thinking about things,” Fox says. “My son is a beautiful human being, and I cannot get enough of being around him.

I am constantly amazed by how much more we can achieve, and how much stronger we are, when we are vulnerable than when we are closed off. Thanks to one of my clients, a man among many dealing with old messages around toughness and self-reliance, for pointing me at this article.

When your body is a prison

prisonI had the pleasure recently of listening to Invisibilia, the relatively new podcast that spun off from Radiolab with Lulu Miller. The first episode concerns thoughts – one of the many invisible forces that powerfully influence our lives.

The second story in the podcast follows a very bright young man named Martin, who, at 12, suddenly fell ill with meningitis. It completely paralyzed and debilitated him, and left him in a vegetative state for about two years.

But after that time, he emerged from it, fully conscious, intelligent and aware…only to find that he could not move his body at all.

This, of course, ties into many of our worst nightmares: we are paralyzed during surgery, but conscious and cognizant of pain. Or we are trying to run from something, only to find our limbs feel like we’re trying to drag them through concrete. One of the most common fears – being buried alive – also comes to mind. You’re alive, conscious, living, breathing, and in full possession of your faculties. But you’re completely and utterly powerless to change your position, or communicate, or…anything.

In this state, the man in question thought endlessly about how pathetic, how helpless, he was. Until he chose to begin ignoring these thoughts, to let them float away. At which point he became detached to the point where each day, he wished to die. “It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish,” says Martin, who now communicates through a computer much like Stephen Hawking’s. “Days, if not weeks, can go by as I close myself down and become entirely black within – a nothingness that is washed and fed, lifted from wheelchair to bed.”

But the remarkable thing about this story was that, shortly before he began to restore some functionality, he chose to return to engaging his thoughts, to draw attention to them, to wrestle with the darker thoughts as they came up. He began focusing on the few things he could control, like teaching himself to tell time by the shadows as they moved through the room. And over time, through many neurological developments, he began to regain some small amounts of movement – the ability to squeeze a hand, or hold himself upright in his chair. It was one nurse – a woman who believed that there was more going on inside than the doctors believed – who urged his parents to have him tested for intelligence.

Once he began to have the tools to communicate, he began to return – not just his mind, but his body as well. Not full functionality, but over several years and with a lot of physical therapy and training, the ability to have a job, to fix computers, to go to college. And, recently, he got married, and is planning on learning to drive.

Listening to this story, I teared up, remembering a story on Radiolab with a similar theme that blew me apart when I listened to it the first time. Here were two examples of people who had been abandoned, left for dead, treated like a houseplant that needs regular feeding and watering and maintenance, but has no way of letting the world outside know what is going on inside. Until through some combination of love and hope from the outside, and hard work linking the mind and the body back together on the inside, the person emerges again.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we so often work with the body as an access point to the emotions and spirit, as a way to let the mind light upon associations and make sense of life. Here, though, is a way in from the other side: using the mind and its capacity for deep attention to restore function to the body, and indeed, restore a person to life.

Listen to the whole thing here.