I had turned back to the computer and was working again, when the ramifications of the first three of my six biggest mistakes came down upon me like a whirlwind.
Or, at least that’s what it felt like.
They came in a group (my Grandmother and my martial arts instructor years ago used to warn me that was how they always come at you) and they were angry. They started yelling at me across the lobby of the big building, and fortunately, since it was late at night, I didn’t attempt to meet them halfway, to exit the safety of the desk area, or to engage them in any way. I watched them walk over quickly, not quite understanding what I was about to experience.
That was my fourth mistake.
I stood up and took a power stance. I spread my legs (they could only see me from the waist up) and crossed my arms as they approached. Then I heard the yelling:
“Why did you come inside and talk to us that way!?”
“What were you talking about in there!?”
“There were other people in that room making noise hours ago and you didn’t come in then!!!”
I started to respond—not thinking at all—as they approached, yelling. Then, both they and I realized something at the same time: We (the two men and the two women and I) both shared the same skin color. I was dressed in the assigned outfit from the company though. And they were dressed—well—however…
“I can only address what I’m actually told about,” I said as they approached. “I was told a few minutes ago that there was a disturbance going on in the room, and the person wanted me to address it. The person also indicated that you were in the general area and had been making noise all night.”
By this time, the inside of my head felt like it was on fire. I was watching their body language, trying to determine if they were going to really be a REAL problem (i.e. an “I gotta call the cops” problem”) or if they were gonna be a SOLVEABLE problem (i.e. an “’I gotta call my manager in the middle of the night’” problem.) Well, with that statement they already made a determination about me, and they proceeded to escalate.
The two men immediately yelled out “Oh! This Uncle Tom is gonna do what the white people say! C’mon (and he used the word you’re thinking of here) get with the program!!!”
Now, a person like me, who does what I do, and who grew up the way that I grew up, has heard this term before. But, my internal response was to flash like a fire. And once the inferno began raging inside me, the adrenaline started, my pupils dilated and I was ready to fight. And the two men and both the women, sensed it. One of the men immediately started jumping up and down with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie, staring me dead in the face, egging me on.
This was my fifth mistake.
And we hadn’t even approached addressing the topic at hand.
Everything began to slow down, from my point of view. And everything became sharply clear.
I visualized my options, and in turn, the outcomes of exercising those options:
Fight and lose my job, possibly my freedom, and probably my life, because I had no idea if the men (or the women) were armed.
Or, call the cops or my manager and “firefight” until they showed up.
Or, get them out of the building as quickly as possible and not worry about pride, or personal offence.
I had those three clear thoughts, and even as I laid out the options for myself in my head, I chose the last one. At the time I was working at that place, the third option was our way of “de-escalating” a customer. But you weren’t supposed to tell the customer you were doing that. I threw that policy out the window when I turned to them, raised my voice, and said “I guess I’ll have to get you a refund on your tickets and your food then. And I’ll get you passes for the next time you come back.”
My heart is pounding, the inside of my head feels like jelly, and as I made my sixth mistake, I looked at their faces, reading their nonverbal expressions—a mixture of surprise, disappointment, elation, disgust, pride, victory—and I didn’t have a clear thought other than “Turn to the computer and start the process.
As I did, these words—still two octaves too high in the open lobby, began to ring out from the group:
“Oh yeah, YOU go and get us our refund!”
“You ain’t nothing! Who do YOU work for around here!”
“Damn right we’ll get our money back. This entire place is RACIST!”
“You gotta CALL somebody to get me my money!?”
In reality the entire refund process took about three minutes. Find the file on the computer, print the documents, walk to the printer, put the documents on the counter in front of the desk, have them sign, collect the passes, give them the passes, watch them walk out of the building.
It felt like it took ten years.
As they walked out, triumphantly waving their free passes and their refunds above their heads, they cried out “We’re NEVER coming back here! We’re going to Regal!!!”
I didn’t care. I sat back down in the chair in my office, and as the adrenaline left my body, and the incident passed, I trembled and shook. I was relieved t have them out of the building, with no police, or managerial, involvement.
Thinking back on the incident, there were many things at play in the confrontation: perceptions, emotions, ideas, thoughts, motivations, goals, history, biological responses, and even cultural issues. All of which, if handled differently would have put me (and them) in a different place.
As it is, our lives are only entwined in the story that I tell. A story they have probably long forgotten. And a story, now here for you all to read.
The Bible tells us that knowing the right thing to do –in thought, in word, and in deed—and then refusing to do it (or choosing to do something different) is sin. The secular world tells us that sin is just a poor environment, the result of bad parenting, or just a set of bad decisions.
But at every step in making my six biggest mistakes, I was triggered in a conflict cycle toward another reaction, by other people who were in relationship with me, and also triggered in that moment, by my responses and reactions. The conflict cycle is not sinful. The conflict cycle is not just a product of environments. The conflict cycle—just like our lives—is a complex, gossamer – like, combination of ourselves, our world, and our choices.
And breaking all of that apart, and learning from it, so we don’t repeat the mistakes in our lives, is a critical process for us to grow and change.
-Peace Be With You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: email@example.com