Apathy isn’t always about not caring…

It seems like I’ve always had the ability to piss persons off just by looking at them. I’ve talked about this before in the post called Putting it in Context.

Mostly, I believe, this is because I learned to be incredibly apathetic about my environment. I believe this began around age five when my maternal grandfather died. He was the human I was closest to at the time; even more than my mother or father. It’s been 55 years, yet I can remember the event as if it were yesterday (don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday, though.)

I was playing on the sidewalk in front of our house on Blue Hills Ave. in Hartford, CT. My grandfather, or Zayde as I called him (it’s the Yiddish word for grandfather) was sitting on the front steps of our house. My brother was playing just down the sidewalk from me with one of our neighbors. Zayde, got up from the steps, took two steps in my direction and fell down, dead from a heart attack. He was 72.

I didn’t cry. In reality I didn’t really understand what was happening. What I do know is from that moment on, both my parents agreed there was the Donny before Zayde died and the Donny after.

While I didn’t comprehend death, I seemingly did comprehend Zayde wouldn’t be coming into our house any more. There would be no more trips to the drug-a-store as he called it in his broken English. There would be no more protecting me from my father’s temper. No more foraging for wild blackberries so he could make his “women’s whiskey.” No more anything. With my one real ‘friend’ gone, I retreated more and more into my own world and there weren’t many allowed in that space.

One way, I believe I learned to keep others from getting too close, allowing me to have a place in my heart for them was to be indifferent if not just outright hostile toward them. And, it was fairly effective. There were a few persons who were given permission to see me as the loving being I am. The operative word is few. Letting too much of the world get close meant if I trusted larger numbers of persons I would ultimately get abandoned or hurt and my ‘risk manager’ just wasn’t about to let that happen. We’ll talk more about the  risk manager in another blog.

The outcome of all this ‘protection’ I was affording myself was not only lonely at times, but in order to effect the outcome of no one getting close, I also pissed off quite a few persons. Up to this point, I’ve been describing my history. Who I am/was and how I got there. Once I became more aware of my inner landscape, of who I really am, I began letting the walls down a bit. There was still a lot of protection from my risk manager, but he got the message not everyone was dangerous and had to be kept out. Working on this behavior, excepting it as a part of me but not letting it run my life was one of the changes which allowed me to become the trainer I am today. You can substitute the word teacher, I just don’t want to create the image of someone in the traditional educational system, K-12. I teach IT professionals how to support Apple technology.

And that’s what lead me to this post. In June of 2011, I taught a class in Music City. This was a five day class (as opposed to many of my classes which are only three days.) In this class I had a young fellow from Georgia. Honestly, I cannot recall having done anything which might be considered untoward behavior to the guy, but something must have occurred for him because before lunch on the third day he had sent several emails to the training center with complaints “as to your (my) demeanor, attitude and professionalism in the classroom.” I was blown away! Not only had this not happened to me as a trainer before, it hadn’t happened in other areas of my business life for many years. I took it pretty hard. I talked to the training center officials, assured them I had no idea what might have happened but I would apologize to the entire class. I did just that.

Just a little later, the students must have received an email from the training center asking them about how the training was going. My guess is the center was looking to see if the incident was isolated or if the whole class felt the same way. Another young fellow in the class, reading the email, looked up at me and said, “That does it. I want the number of the training center right now!” I provided the number to him and he called the project manager. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I want you to have another perspective. I think Donny is doing a wonderful job in the classroom. I think, and several others think he’s a great teacher who is clearly passionate about his work. I appreciate everything Donny is doing for us and I don’t think there’s anything the matter. The individual you heard from is not representative of our class. He shows up late every morning and only seems interested in meeting his wife for lunch.” He hung up. I was so moved I almost started to cry. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had stood up for me like this.

On the fourth day, the ne’er-do-well called me out of class in the morning. He told me he thought it was extremely inappropriate I had apologized to the class. He said he was going to request a re-do of the class with another instructor. I said that was his prerogative. Nothing more transpired between us the rest of the day. He sat through the class playing with his iPod Touch. My thought was, “He’s paying for this class. He can do whatever he wants.” I left him alone.

In the classes I teach, each student at the end of class gets to evaluate the class from the perspective of the classroom, the materials used, the training center in general and of course, the trainer. That’s me. In the rating system used, 1 is bad; 5 is best. The students can also leave comments in any of the sections being rated.

Day five. Last day of class. Most of the students have been great. Then, there’s the guy who’s been a challenge. No iPod today. Well, at least not in the same manner as Day four. We get through the day without incident. End of the day. Evaluation time. I’m resigned I’ll get pretty good marks from most of the class and probably 1s from the guy from Georgia. Oh, well, it’s only one guy in one class, I’ll survive.

As Mr. iPod is finishing is evaluation, he looks over to me and says, wait for it, “I gave you all 5s.” I’m thinking, “He’s lying.” But, he calls me over, wants me to see he’s on the up-and-up. Once again in this class, I’m floored. I ask him if he still intends to take the class over with another instructor? He says, “Nope. I’m good. The first three days were very different than the last two. You (me) changed and I got what I came for.”

Human nature. Go figure. Maybe the first three days he was having trouble with his girl friend. Maybe he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Who knows. What I tell myself about this, is once again, I managed, without trying, to piss someone off (I made it about me; kinda crazy, but sometimes that’s what I do.) Whatever it was that changed for him, I’m grateful. I don’t like those 1s.

I continue, each day, to watch how I show up. I really don’t want to piss anyone off. And, the lesson here is sometimes, it just happens. Can’t be helped. If it happens because the old me shows up, and he does, I take a lesson from my friend, Willie. I ask for a do over. I explain I don’t like showing up like an asshole and if the person I know I’ve offended is willing, I attempt to make amends. Just a simple, oops. Each day is a trial. Most days, I win.

How am I Changing? The part of me who is apathetic and indifferent to others and doesn’t care if I piss someone off was/is valuable. It probably helped me survive a lot of stuff I might not have otherwise. Perhaps there’s still a place for that ‘me’. But the me I want to show up most days, is more open of heart, empathetic and understanding. Changing for the better; not just for others, but especially for me.


8 thoughts on “Apathy isn’t always about not caring…”

  1. There’s a lot to learn there. Trust me, I’ve been there, and while I am puzzled about what it was I did to piss them off, just asking simple questions, never-the-less there it is. I’m trying not to walk down that alley any more.

    1. Robert, it can be a struggle some days. Many days, I just show up. It’s kind of like what the Last Samurai’s son tells the Tom Cruise character.
      Nobutada: Please forgive, too many mind.
      Nathan Algren: Too many mind?
      Nobutada: Hai. Mind the sword, mind the people watch, mind the enemy, too many mind… [pause] No mind.
      When I just empty my mind and be me, the genuine me, everything seems to work just fine.
      I really appreciate your comment.

  2. Well, this one gets personal, that’s for sure. I can relate to the loss of a grandparent at a young age. I also understand what it is like to lose a parent; it sucks! I too am pretty standoffish with people. I have a couple of hats that I wear: the work hat; and the private person hat. Two completely different people.

    I always tell people that there is a difference between training and education (I use that term rather than teaching, because as trainers, we teach too. I will clarify in a few sentences). Education is about gaining knowledge; training is about learning how to do something; i.e., accomplish one or more tasks. Teaching is imparting knowledge or demonstrating how to do something. If the knowledge imparted or the skill demonstrated is in to help the student(s) be able to accomplish the task(s), then it is referred to as training.

    As to apologizing, I only do it when I feel that I have done something wrong. I am pretty stubborn, as you know. If I feel that I am in the right, and someone is bent out of shape about something that I said or did, tough. However, if a customer is pissed–when I am training, my students, or the attendees for those who prefer that term, are my customers–then I have to troubleshoot the problem. Even if I am convinced that I am 100% in the right and the person making a stink is a complete ass, I would pull him or her to the side and have a discussion. I would not do it in front of the class. That can make someone who is stubborn dig in and refuse to back down. Remember, everyone’s perception is their reality. If I challenge someone in front of others, chances are that the situation will escalate. Once we had the issue resolved, if the rest of the class was aware that there was an issue between me and the problem student, I probably would announce to the class that I and the student had worked things out and all was good now.

    1. LeRoy, as in all things I know about you, and I wish I knew more, this is a wonderful share-back.

      I have found apologizing, in many scenarios, doesn’t really cost me anything. And…I have to want a better outcome with the person to do it.

      With a customer, while I hate the term ‘the customer is always right,’ I do believe the customer has most often paid me for something and my obligation for that is to give her/him the best of me I can.

      Thanks for adding your insights. Well appreciated, my friend.

  3. Your blog helps me to stay focused on what’s truly important in life. By striving to do better, you are a constant inspiration! Keep pushing, and we’ll all be better individuals!

    1. Thanks, Susan. It’s a struggle a lot of the time. I’ve had two days this week where my angrily impatient other self has shown up. I don’t really like him, and I know, just like the apathetic me, he serves a purpose. I hope and pray one day I won’t need either any longer and if I do, I’m willing to pardon my grievances as just another human part of me.

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