Posted by: MC | August 20, 2012

A Tough Guy’s Good Things List

This morning I had a conversation with a man named Gordon.  Gordon is in his 70’s.  He’s a big burly man who spent working life among the towering conifers of the Pacific Northwest.  To this day he still wears plaids, jeans, suspenders and heavy work boots.  His face and hands are sculpted by decades outdoors and his eyes are gray – brown like chips of smoky quartz.

We sat at a sidewalk table outside a coffee shop in North Portland.  It was one of Portland’s soft mornings – only the barest breeze and still warm on the heels of the hot weather we’d had during the week.  Early morning mist had lifted, but it was still cloudy.  Like I say – it was soft.

Gordon and I had wandered into a conversation to match the feel of the morning – a chat about kindness.  Gruff as he appears, Gordon began describing the ways he had developed for taking care of his relationships with kids and wife and now grandkids.  He it was about 30 years ago now when he started to get it that his way of dealing with anger wasn’t doing much other torching and scaring the people he loved.  That wasn’t worth it for Gordon, so he started considering, in the scientific way of a resource manager, what he needed to be doing differently.

These are the things I took away from listening to Gordon:

  • You’re not always going to be kind.  That’s just the way it is.
  • Once you know that, you can start seeing the times you are about to get mean and put out a warning.  It ought to include saying something about your internal state like “I’m feeling a little explosive and I don’t want to do any damage.”
  • At times like that it’s good to take a walk or do something away and alone if that’s possible.  The other option is supporting your loved one (s) going off to do something without you that they were about to do anyway.
  • Way more challenging and slower to get skilled with is when there’s no chance of shifting the physical arrangement (say you’re in a traffic jam or snow bound).  One possibility is to let others know you’re taking time out from interacting, then get quiet.  Count to yourself, sing songs in your mind or do something else to help let all the energy diffuse.
  • There’s no set recipe for protecting kindness.  It’s what works for each person.
  • As you get better at all of this, start out with slowing down to listen really closely to what the other person is saying since it may be something different than the thing that would set you off.
  • Finally, every night before you go to sleep, write a Good Things List.

Yep.  A Good Things List.  This from a complete tough guy.  This from an older white man with a gravelly voice who spent his life in manual labor.

Gordon said it’s as simple as it sounds.  “I’ve got the evidence,” he said, “because I’ve done it.”  He went on to suggest that when times are toughest and you feel more misunderstood than not, when it seems like things are as bad as they can get, that’s when to start.  Every night take the time just before bed and write what you’re grateful for.  “It will surprise you,” he said.  “There’s always more than you think.  You just missed it because you were so focused on what was happening that was wrong.”

He said it wasn’t immediate, but over time the effect of his writing was to make it so he wasn’t as easily triggered by the stuff he didn’t like.  The tough times and the people who could set him off most still got to him, but he was way less likely to react in unkind ways.

So, for me this coffee conversation is a story of several things.  It is a story of relational courage and presence in a person who could easily be stereotyped as an unfeeling, no-nonsense strong man.  And being purely descriptive, Gordon is the last two things, but he’s not the combination.  Smashing the stereotype, he is a courageous and caring man interested in nurturing and protecting his relationships.  This isn’t language we expect to read about people like Gordon.  My experience with the 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change project has given me repeated evidence that stereotypes generally don’t hold up for anyone – and that kindness is a higher priority than we’re led to believe.  Of course, we come by those beliefs not only with the help of the media and our leadership (see last week’s EX:C blog) but through our daily encounters with people who go to meanness and rage out of their own well learned fear that kindness is the last thing they’ll encounter in a given interaction.  So this is a story of inspiration for any of us who experience that kind of fear – on the receiving end or as the ones on the attack.

It’s also a story of true Elderhood.  That is likely a topic for another blog, but I want to mention it here because it seems to me that another habit of stereotyping is to blow off older people as having nothing of use to share.  This is, to my mind, a horrible (and stupid) waste of a profound resource for our individual and community wellbeing.  Gordon has tons more to teach than this.  He like all Elders, has been in a life and surviving it for lots of years.  And like most Elders, he’s been paying attention.

So tonight, when the late summer sky is giving itself over to darkness earlier than I’d like, I’m going to give Gordon’s Good Things List a try.  I’ve already put the note pad and the ball point on the table next to my bed.  Thank goodness I know a good role model when I see one.


  1. Great, great ideas, especially the list and the reminder that elders have so much to offer if we are open to listening. Thank you!

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