“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russian poet)
Remember when you were a kid? I know, I know. It’s been a long time for me too. I mean the being a kid part, not the remembering part. I have flashes of memories from my childhood all the time. Joy, regrets, pride, shame, and hard lessons learned. Remember when your mom asked you if you’d done something wrong?
I have a memory of playing with Barbie and Ken with my sister, rolling Ken’s plastic car over the hutch in the dining room, pretending they were going to a movie, Ken’s plastic arm stretched to touch Barbie’s knee, his other hand barely reaching the steering wheel. I pushed Ken’s car around my mom’s crystal vase, the one she saw in the china department in Woodwards (now that’s a long time ago), and saved for, nickels and dimes turning into dollars, until months later she was able to buy it. I remember when she brought the vase home, how she took it out of it’s box, unwrapped the layers of tissue paper. She held it carefully; her arms outstretched in admiration and pleasure. She positioned it in different spots in the dining room until she found just the right place for it. Then she moved it back and forth as though the vase was a model and she the photographer who had to find the perfect light and angle to display her subject’s flawlessness.
I felt the bump against my elbow as I pushed Ken’s car around the crystal vase for the third time. I saw the vase tip as though in slow motion. I think I made a grab for it. I seem to recall that. I remember thinking I should have been playing outside, like my mom told me to before she went down to the basement to do laundry. She couldn’t have heard Ken’s car fall to the hardwood floor or the vase hit the hutch.
I righted the vase, put it back in its place. I remember seeing one of the pointy bits of the vase in my hand and not understanding why it was there. I remember telling my sister it didn’t look too bad as I turned the chipped side out of direct view, to face the wall. I remember she rolled her eyes.
I hid the broken piece in my bedroom until I could figure out how I would find some glue and fix it back on, hopefully before my mom noticed what had happened.
Later that day my mom asked, “What happened to the vase?” I had forgotten that she obsessively dusted and cleaned every day.
I said nothing, couldn’t meet her eyes.
“Well something happened.” she said. “You know I’ll find out.”
Again silence was my response. My sister didn’t say anything. I remember trying to avoid my mom too, which isn’t easy to do when you’re a little kid so dependent on your mom. It continued this way until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I brought the chip of crystal to my mom, tearfully explained what had happened, and asked her if we could fix it. I remember her being angry, I remember me being ashamed and tentative anytime I spoke to her over the next few days, and I do remember eventually feeling better for having come clean.
I’ve been thinking about this over the last few weeks as I’ve witnessed politicians and business leaders alike go quiet when asked pointed questions about something gone wrong.
Whether it was Prime Minister Harper or Senator Duffy or Mayor Rob Ford or the heads of the big box stores who had garments made in the Bangladeshi factory that collapsed, they all became speechless when asked one simple question, “What happened?” And let’s not forget what Lance Armstrong’s reaction was (before the Oprah interview) when faced with mounting evidence of using performance-enhancing drugs. He was adamant and vocal before any concrete evidence was produced, even suing his accusers. Afterwards, the man who fought every allegation brashly went mute.
I don’t condone the responses of these individuals or their silence. Yes, they are leaders and we deserve, at the very minimum, honesty from our leaders. I do expect a full accounting of their actions and an apology. But I also realize, they are human beings too. And having screwed up myself this week I know how hard it is to take responsibility when things go wrong.
I almost pulled that universal kid response of going quiet myself when it turned out that I was completely wrong in what I had told a colleague when he questioned me about something he thought I’d done. I did fess up, within minutes of checking my emails and confirming what actually happened. But there was a moment when I did think, don’t admit to anything, just let things blow over. Knowing this about myself made me realise that honesty and being forthright is something we all need to practice every single day. It doesn’t come easily when your back is against the wall and that fight or flight instinct to survive kicks in.
If you don’t believe that we are all capable of dishonesty either by being silent or by telling an outright lie, remember when you were a kid and your mom asked you who put the hole in the wall, or who drew the graffiti on the wall, or who stole the change off the kitchen table. And if you can’t remember that far back, try to remember the last time your boss asked you who screwed up the numbers on the spreadsheet. Or the last time your partner asked you who put that stain on her favourite table. What was your first reaction?
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