“You know that Ellen is here tonight?”
My Saskatoon minister — a friend, I’d call her — is clearly nervous. I wonder whether I feel insulted. After all, the reason she’s nervous is me.
It’s March 1986 and we’re about to start our church’s annual general meeting which, like the rest of its ilk, will be boooring. Attending them as a painful Christian duty, I’m not likely even earning any points with the Scorekeeper in the sky.
Although the whole agenda is pro forma, the worst item is always the In Memoriam, in which we note those of our congregation who have died since the last such meeting. Well, in the words of a typical In Memoriam speaker, no one has, you know, actually died. No, they have joined the choir invisible and we honour them by reading a sweetly sentimental poem.
Not my sort of thing at all and, indeed, no one has ever asked me to do one. It has always been a task thrust upon someone too sweetly sentimental to say “Hell, no” or even “No, but thanks awfully.” But this year I have A Plan, whose first step is volunteering to do the In Memoriam: judging by the reaction, an action without precedent.
Surprised, but unwilling to look a volunteer in the mouth, the husband half of our clergy couple had hastily accepted my offer. Where did that start to go wrong, I wonder – in his own later reflection or during a conversation with his wife? I don’t know, but I do know that she at least is wondering what might come out of my mouth, which is neither sweet nor sentimental.
“You know that Ellen is here tonight?”
Indeed I do. Ellen has been much in my thoughts as I wrote my piece: She is a recent widow, but a long-standing member of a marriage strained by her husband’s unacknowledged alcoholism. But now is not the time to go into all that. I nod and smile, reassuringly I hope. “Yes.”
Ten minutes into the meeting I am called upon, and something just less than consternation rustles through the room as I walk to the podium. Five minutes later I walk back to my varnished plywood chair amid complete silence.
“Who wrote that?”
I glance at the gangly redhead on my left who has leaned in to whisper his question. He’s a smart-alecky young lawyer with whom I have struck up a friendship on the basis of some characteristic we share, but which escapes me now.
“I did,” I whisper back. His face goes still as he tries and fails to mask his surprise.
What in God’s name, as it were, had I done? Just this: I had spoken from the heart.
I spoke of death, using that “d” word. I spoke of life and its inevitable loss. I spoke of the joy and pain of love, given our imperfect natures. I spoke — as I could then — of our shared faith stance, of our assurance of God’s perfect love, for those we loved and for us, now and forever.
I spoke from my heart. That I spoke to the hearts of at least some in the room was borne out by the reaction both that night and in the next few weeks, as people asked for a copy of my words for themselves or to pass on to someone who was grieving.
But a good part of the reaction wasn’t to the words themselves: It was to those words coming from me. Known as a relentless wit, if not always a truly funny one, I played against type that night, and it was powerful.
Playing against type works beyond the personal sphere. The political examples of the same phenomenon are instructive. In the USA, Nixon was the guy who finally went to Communist China: Could a Democrat have taken the same action without being pilloried as being soft on Commies? JFK doubled-down on the US role in Vietnam: Would a Republican President have been given a pass on that decision?
In Canada in the 1990s, the Liberals tamed the deficit and the debt: Would a Conservative government have been forgiven for equivalent slashing? This week, to wide approval, a Liberal government delayed the intake of Syrian refugees, at least in part to address security concerns: Would a Conservative government have been applauded or castigated for the same action, the same reasoning?
Yeah, I know, “Hypothetical, Your Honour.” How can we know?
But I do know that when I see people, organizations, and governments playing against what I assume is their type, acting in a way that doesn’t align with what I believe are their natural preferences or biases, I give them more credit for what they’re doing.
I sometimes think that governments, particularly, should look for opportunities to do precisely that: To look at the country and the world and find something to do that nobody would expect from them. After all, if the other guys tried to do it, whatever “it” is, we’d give them hell.
By and large, day to day, I have to be my type. But I have come to see that playing against type, every now and then, is one of the most powerful things I can do. Maybe that any of us can do.