Be Like Water

“The best man is like water.  Water is good: it benefits all things and does not compete with them.”  -Lao Tzu[i]

I teach a course on the New Testament, and my goal this week was to finish the Gospel of Mark.  I figured we’d talk about Mark’s somber portrayal of dim-witted disciples and a suffering messiah.  Part-way through our discussion, however, someone asked a question about Roman Catholicism and the conversation veered into an explanation of the papacy, infant baptism, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and how Catholics actually represent a sizable majority of all Christians in the world.  I thought about getting us back to Mark, but Southern Baptists tend to see Catholics as the spawn of Satan, so any informed input is good.

There was a time I wouldn’t have been so flexible.  When I first started working in an alcohol rehab, I repeatedly butted heads with patients who didn’t want to go where they were supposed to go, or do what they were supposed to do.  As a weekend and overnight counselor, I essentially babysat twenty alcoholics in early withdrawal through their downtime in a place they didn’t want to be.  Everyone had to get up at seven.  Everyone had to line up in the hallway before walking to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the same coming back.  No one was to be alone anywhere in the building.  The pay phone could be used at certain hours, as regulated by a sign-up sheet.

Saturday afternoon was exercise period.  Weather permitting, I’d take the guys outside, where they could shoot baskets, or play wiffle ball on a patch of grass, or occasionally have a dorm-wide volleyball game.  One afternoon, as we were picking sides for volleyball, one of the new residents refused to play.  Jermaine was in his early twenties and volleyball wasn’t on his list of desirable activities.  He wanted to play basketball or go back inside to watch television.

I explained the therapeutic importance of joint activities; he didn’t care.  Jermaine said I couldn’t make him play; I said I could write him up for being a pain in the ass, requiring a meeting with the clinical team on Monday and a possible discharge.  Under duress, he stood half-heartedly on the back row, and I felt badly for being a prick.  The game ended soon thereafter, since nobody was in the mood to play anything.

The following week I sat down with Romeo.  Romeo was one of the primary therapists, and someone I respected, so I asked him why I kept having these little run-ins.  It was causing me stress, because I didn’t enjoy them.  His feedback was that I was having power struggles with the residents, and if wanted to avoid them, all I had to do was not get into them.  It takes two to tango.  Of course, he added, we’ve got a lot of unpleasant guys not feeling too good about themselves, and looking for an argument.

As I thought about it, I realized that I wanted things to happen in a particular way as a validation of my authority.  When someone resisted my plans, I responded as if my position was being challenged, instead of looking for a different way to accomplish the same end.  Avoiding power struggles appeared to be a matter of flexibility and going with the flow.  How do I move ahead without getting stuck in the mud of a dispute?

A few months later I had an opportunity to test my newfound skills.  One morning, while supervising breakfast, I took a head count and found Rashad was missing.

“Where’s Rashad?”

“He went back to his room?”

“Why’d he do that?  He knows he can’t be alone on the unit.”

“He said he didn’t give a shit.”

Leaving my group with the nurse, I walked upstairs and found Rashad in his room.  “What are you doing up here?  You know you can’t be up here by yourself.”  Rashad’s response was to stand up, jerk his hoodie over his head, stick his hands in his pockets, and glower.  He didn’t need to talk.

“Rashad, look, I don’t give a shit if you never even eat breakfast, but you’re not supposed to be alone on the unit for your own good.  If you’re up here alone, and something goes wrong, you’re going to get blamed and kicked out.  So, here’s the deal.  Stay in your room.  But, just know, if somebody says a cigarette is missing, or a couple quarters are gone from their drawer, or somebody’s been sniffing their underwear, it’s going to fall on you.”  And I left.

Rashad was never friendly, but he never went back to his room early from meals again.  I learned a useful lesson that has helped me immensely over the years.  There’s more than one way to get someplace.  If you’re willing to take another route, a lot of conflict can be averted.  Some people want a conflict, but you don’t have to accommodate them.  If you do accommodate them, the blame is your own, because you knew better.

After a while, as I stopped asserting my power, the residents stopped doing the same.  My run-ins grew less and less.  Or maybe I simply didn’t care anymore.

[i]  Tao-te ching, #8, translated by Wing-Tsit Chan, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

2 Responses to “Be Like Water”

  1. I like this posting very much and can relate to it. Sometimes I find myself butting heads with students and wonder how I got there. This posting will help me in the future not only to avoid “power struggles” but also to be happier in my job!

    Are you teaching Old Testament this semester? If so, what time?

  2. As always Buck, Wise Words

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