Saturday, February 23, 2013

Coming Out of the Closet … with Charlie

Funny how some of the things that seem so terrible at the time, maybe humiliating and embarrassing moments, turn out to be life’s most wonderful and beneficial lessons. The key is getting over it, learning from it and moving on.

Some years ago working in North Carolina, living back in the woods, down a dirt road that ran through a tobacco field outside of Greensboro, I was employed by a very small division of a large textile corporation.

A tremendous opportunity arose for our small start up division when a prospective client showed interested in the services of our fledgling company to support their national advertising campaign, .

Excited at the prospect of “hitting the big time”, my boss Charlie and I worked up a presentation to sell our services.

Now, I was feeling pretty important at this point. It was looking like I had “arrived”. Just a few years earlier, as a young, mid-twenties, computer operations specialist I was far from being a consultant. Now look at me, flying on the company plane to New York City to make an important client presentation, “hitting the BIG TIME”.

When the limousine pulled up under the wing of the corporate plane at Teeterboro airport, my eyes glazed over at the feeling of being “Executive Material”… a most important young man. Amazing how quickly one can get stars in their eyes!!!


We were whisked by limousine down to Madison Avenue. The Ad agency offices where we were to meet the client were right out of a Hollywood set, expensive furniture and luxurious brilliant red carpet covered the floor and then continued right up the walls. A few pictures on the walls broke up the sea of red, and there were several gold door knobs adorning the carpeted walls, indicating doors leading to the inside office corridor and conference rooms. 

Warmly welcomed by the Ad Agency staff, we made our way into a conference room filled with client representatives and Ad agency executives, and we made our presentation. 

Then, feeling the glow that comes with a successful sales presentation and with my own visions of rapid growth into top management ranks becoming more realistic, Charlie and I confidently left the room. Most of the client group followed us out into the reception area, exchanging wishes for safe travel.

Then, the unthinkable happened. I reached for the gold doorknob, the one prominently sticking out of that sea of red carpet. As I opened the door and walked out of the offices, both Charlie and I looked back to say one more "Thank You". As the door closed behind us, it became very dark. With sinking heart I realized what had happened. I had gone through the wrong door and we were in the coat closet. Charlie nudged me and said, "We have to come out of the closet."

My worst fears were realized as we emerged from the closet and saw the entire group, customers, ad agency executives, receptionist all laughing so hard that tears were streaming down their faces. My visions of “self-importance” shattered, no more Mr. Big Shot. Completely humiliated, I reached for another of those treacherous gold door knobs and this time, thankfully, it was the exit door.

Charlie never said a word. He is just a little my senior, a Vice President in our company, very mature, very smart, and much more conservative. Like, he knows the difference between a closet and a corridor.

When we had traveled down about 20 floors in the high speed elevator Charlie, breaking the deafening silence, said softly, “Well Collini (a nickname he gave me), do you think they guessed we were small town North Carolina boys?”

Well, in spite of having the "ego stuffing" knocked out of me, with the tension lifted and the air cleared I started laughing, and we laughed all the way to the ground floor, out into the street, into a taxi, and actually we have been laughing about it ever since.

I learned two very valuable lessons that day. First, humor heals. Charlie’s own humility, his ability to overlook an act that made us both look silly, and pretty darn "country", and his kind support of an employee/friend made a lasting impression. That wonderful example of forgiveness, overcoming embarrassment, being able to laugh at life was surely a cure for self-importance. Recently, still remembering that experience after all of the years, Charlie sent me the cartoon below:

                CHARLIE and COLLINI in the BIG CITY 

Friendship means forgiveness, patience, not holding a grudge, overlooking faults. It means encouraging, building up, supporting.

So many times since that day I have laughed during the most tense and serious moments, remembering that “Coming out of the Closet” experience, being reminded that human experience is like a dream, that we can change things by our attitude, we can “improve the dream”, we can survive the mistakes, the wrong moves, the sometimes poorly made decisions.

The second and very important lesson was that pride and a feeling of self-importance are NOT OUR FRIENDS.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the hungry hearts of the people of his day, included a simple formula for success and happiness. In the book of Matthew, he counseled,
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Far from being a sign of weakness, meekness opens our eyes to see who we REALLY are as God's children.

A wonderful rendering of this same verse as recorded in The Message translation by Bible Scholar Eugene H. Peterson, from the original languages, brings it close to home to me:
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

When we tear away the false “this world” concept of success and happiness, the “race to the top”, pursuing wealth, fame, the need to be "the greatest" or to be admired for our wonderful achievements, we come to better understand the things of true worth and value. We become open to understanding our heritage as spiritual beings, as heirs of God. We begin see the true joy and happiness which is ours as we express the real and lasting qualities of love; tenderness; faithfulness; loyalty; honesty; selflessness. The temptation to be "someone else" fades away, replaced by a priceless sense of the wonder of life itself.

Experience shows that we could interpret the verse about "meekness" to say, "stay out of the fickle closet of arrogance and ego", and keep your eyes open to be sure you enter the right door, the door to unselfishness, humility and love.

Take my word for it.... It’s dark in that closet!!!


Melissa Hayden said...

Thanks Pat, good reminder. 19th century theologian, Mary Baker Eddy said, "One must fulfill one's mission without timidity or dissimulation, for to be well done, the work must be done unselfishly."

Laura Moliter said...

Another winner, Pat! You made me giggle AND feel inspired, two of my very favorite things to do! Thanks for your humility and wisdom, your meekness and your understanding of just what that means!