A funny thing happened to me the other day.
I have a gorgeous friend, who’s really humble about her looks. She’s also, by profession, an aesthetician. She makes other people beautiful, essentially.
We were having a coffee, when a lady came by and said hello. This lady had terrible skin, so I assumed she was a patient. The chatting revolved around general how we were, how hot it was etc. and then this interloper looks at my gorgeous friend and tells her that her hair need to be touched up. Urgently. And that the colour was actually looking terrible. (A fact which I hadn’t even noticed!)
I mean, would you ever? Especially to a doctor who’s treating you as a patient?
Except, I had it wrong. My friend was the patient, in the sense that this lady was her hairdresser and had been for years. If anyone in the world was allowed to point out that the colour was shoddy or the hair needed fixing, it was her.
It made me realise that we are all to a greater or lesser extent, in positions of or under authority. In that instance, if my friend had said to her hairdresser, “It’s time for another peel,” I would have got it. And once the dynamics were clear, I understood the hair comment. Not to say that I thought my friend’s hair looked bad, but I understood the authority by which this lady had the right to say that it was time for a touch up.
There are, of course, bigger issues, ones that it’s not ideal to have authority. My dietician, for example, told me today that I needed to stop eating peanut butter completely. Had my mom said that, who I love and respect, I would have found a way to argue around the point because my mom is not the person I’ve trusted with my dietary health. I know she loves me, I know she wants me healthy, but my dietician, however, could tell me to eat cardboard and I probably would trust her wisdom.
A fellow musician recently told me that when he started out as a band member, he was placed under the authority of a man who could not read a watch. My muso friend is a stickler for punctuality. This relationship was doomed from the start, or so one would assume. But instead, the lack of punctuality led to a few honest conversations over the years, whereby my friend helped his leader learn the value of time. And my friend learned so much more, amongst other things, that time is not everything. Because there was an unspoken agreement that the senior leader would have authority in that situation. It worked.
Think about the times where someone has offended you, not because of ego, but because you genuinely believe they spoke out-of-place. It’s because they assumed authority in that area and you hadn’t granted it. It’s a delicate balance. And one that I guess is better to err on the side of caution.
When you make peace with someone in authority over you, when they point out an error or a fault along the way, you accept it with grace. It still stings – don’t get me wrong. I’ve been reprimanded in areas recently where it’s taken huge self-control not to argue in my own defence. But it stings less when you know that the person speaking into your life is doing so to see the best come out of you, and not to hurt you. Obviously, that’s an essential component.
Sometimes that calls on having tough conversations, if you are the one who has the authority. But here, the warning label really should read: Proceed with Caution. You need to be sure that the authority is in place, that the level of respect and concern is real enough that the person will see your heart. Else, it backfires with disastrous consequences. As I’m sure each one of us can attest to.
A university lecturer, back in the day, once called me in to tell me that I needed to see a psychologist to deal with an accident that happened when I was a teenager. I’d done a piece of writing that happened to be quite graphic, I guess. I remember thinking, “Who the hell does she think she is?” and feeling as though I had been attacked. You see, she had no authority to speak into my personal life. None. And that’s the clincher. A year later, when I was doing my Masters degree and my supervisor gave me some personal advice, which he did from time to time, I took it to heart. He had my interests at heart. And we had walked a journey together. That gave him the space to do so, I guess.
Basically, this one interaction over coffee stopped me from speaking to a guy I know fairly well, whose wife is a good friend, because I thought he had made a decision that had probably hurt his wife more than he realised. She wanted me to say something. But it was not my place. I had to pray hard about that. Because I’m defensive of my friends, but having seen it over and over, in my own life and others, when you speak outside of your zone of authority, you almost always do more harm than good.
Now, if only there were a secret sign we could use to show when someone had gained that position of authority in our lives. That would make this all a whole lot less of a mine field.