Ramen Noodles in a Cast Iron Skillet

February 19, 2021

Welcome to your life
There’s no turning back

— Tears for Fears

I started the week in a great mood, having spent the entire weekend moving my wife’s mother into an assisted living facility.  It was physically taxing and emotionally draining, especially for her and her mom.  But I felt like I had just been allowed to participate in a very personal and almost sacred experience.  My wife made the comment, “this is probably her last home” and suddenly it hit her hard that her mom’s physical health and mind are slowly fading. I held space for her and just listened with empathy and compassion, and did not try to fix anything or make any comparisons to the loss of both of my parents.  I was supportive and strong for her in her time of need.  Monday, I woke up in what seemed to be a great mood and jumped right out of bed, ready to start a new week. But this façade ended when I arrived in the kitchen to make myself breakfast and found the cast iron skillet (basically the only pan I use), dirty and filled with leftover noodles of some kind. I turned to my backup plan to make cereal but found the frig devoid of both almond milk (my favorite) and even regular milk.  In that moment, I began to have what I call “a meltdown”.  I fired off a long text to my wife to complain about the pan and to rant about the following things (this is not an exhaustive list of what I sent her):

A broken HVAC system, a leaky roof, car trouble, a laptop that is dying, dental issues, chimney repairs, and the sense of aging, all wrapped inside a pandemic.  I then crawled back into bed.  My wife returned my text and like I did for her during the weekend, she showed compassion and empathy, and basically gave me permission to pout, at least for a little while.  Sometimes venting is helpful, sometimes pouting and taking a nap is helpful or taking a run.   I have heard the analogy that we live in house comprised of various rooms.  Anger/frustration/grief are like a certain room in your house.  It is helpful to visit the room from time to time, but you don’t want to make it your primary place to hangout.

So why was I so triggered by the skillet?  Have you ever tried to break a wire hanger?  It is hard to break into two; but not if you continually bend the wire back and forth because eventually the metal weakens and then breaks.  In many ways, we humans are like this.  We can be strong (and resilient), but if continually stressed (bent like the wire), we eventually break.  The skillet was not the real problem, it was merely the “straw that broke the camel’s back” (a reference to a game we played when I was a kid in the 1970’s)

“The presenting Issue” 

We have all been there, both in our personal lives as well as in our organizations.

In many ways, the Skillet was what we OD practitioners refer to as the “presenting issue”.  It is the initial diagnosis of what is happening and what is causing some problem or challenge.  The real challenge is often much deeper and more systemic.  It requires us to step back and pause and look at what is occurring throughout the organization.  (this is at the heart of systems thinking).  

Something that you may already surmised was behind skillet incident, something I initially overlooked, was the mental fatigue of a pandemic and a long emotionally taxing weekend.

 “That sometimes, human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack. That concentrating on anything is very hard work.”

― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Often what captures our attention is merely a symptom, a final straw in some aspect of organizational life.  It speaks to what we look at, how we look at things, and how we communicate our observations to our colleagues. 

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

― David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

I sometimes struggle to convey the organizational connection to the stories I share in this weekly blog.  But when I take a moment to pause and reflect, I am reminded that organizational live (i.e. our workplaces) are merely a collection of human beings attempting to accomplish together something that would not be possible on their own.  Our organizations are a microcosm of life.  All of life’s emotions are intertwined in the places we work: joy, frustration, anger, grief, sadness, anxiety, contentment, and even love.  We may try to compartmentalize our lives between the different areas, but this is not a sustainable strategy.  Like the wire hanger, something eventually breaks.  To be authentically human is to be genuine in all areas of our lives. To be vulnerable and real.  Look for opportunities to find joy in your work, to show compassion and empathy to a co-worker who has suffered some hidden loss.  Try and listen not just to the content of what you hearing in a Zoom meeting, but also the emotions behind the words.  

It wasn’t about the Ramen Noodles in the cast iron skillet.  

Have a nice weekend and stay safe.

Mary Oliver quote

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