The Call From a Stranger

I received an email from a woman a while back asking me if I’d be potentially interested in volunteering to help set up GAP Community’s first leadership training in Atlanta, GA. I thought “sure, why not?” – I could use the experience.

My phone rang. A chipper and energetic voice chimed:

“Hi, this is ____ with GAP Community. How’re you doing today, Nick?”

It was the start of an an importantly humbling experience that wound up growing me and changing the way I view all my relationships.

About GAP Community

GAP is a faith-based organization which facilitates opportunities that empower, inspire and resource individuals to come alive and create a lasting impact in their communities.

I’ve now attended 2 GAP trainings: My first was Awaken, their 4-day flagship seminar that pushed me to confront my unconscious limitations through raw and profound group exercises and lots of introspective work. It helped me see how in my romantic relationship I was simultaneously pulling for yet pushing away intimacy, and how some of my deepest childhood wounds provoked disbelief in God, so I concluded God didn’t exist to rationalize away my pain.

The second – just complete as of two days ago – was Transformational Leadership. Transformational it was. That will be written about in a separate post, linked here. For the purpose of this post, I’m just writing about my experience volunteering for GAP.

My Volunteering Experience

This was the first time I had ever volunteered my own time to any cause without input from anyone else. I don’t count work charity events or father-son charity work. I evaluated my experience at Awaken, and concluded that GAP provided enough value for me to want to give my time to them.

It was seriously educational, fear-provoking, and humbling.

The team I worked with was great; GAP has an amazing network of high-quality men and women of all ages around the world  to help them facilitate trainings. I just so happened to move to Atlanta after completing my Awaken Training, which was their next destination city to create a presence.

Communication is Key

We lost a team member right from the start. He was dealing with personal issues that left him barely able to function, and despite obviously having a big heart and desire to serve, we had to let him go. To his credit, he stood up for his emotional needs and stated directly to the team he felt unable to continue contributing. This takes courage, especially when there’s an implicit understanding that we “need” each other for the training to succeed.

The remaining 3 of us were fierce contenders with great energy, and a sincere desire to see GAP expand. We all had our lives touched by GAP, and felt committed to moving forward despite the early obstacle.

I chose to perform clerical work – stuff like calling participants to brief them ahead of the training on logistics, tracking the progress of setting up the event, making name tags, and so on. As someone who was new to volunteering, let alone setting up training events, I wanted the simplest responsibility possible to support my team in doing the more hardcore legwork. I was also tasked with trying to get others in my network to join the training, which lead to many unforeseen obstacles.

The Salesman Who Couldn’t Sell

This is where the humbling part came in.

I set my goal to get twelve people to come to this training.

I got two. One of whom was my mother.

And what’s funny – is that I somehow am managing not to beat myself up over it. In fact, I’m grateful things turned out this way. I learned many incredibly valuable lessons that will serve me for the rest of my life in every relationship I have moving forward.

I can’t sell something I don’t deeply believe in, period, no exceptions.

There are 2 levels to this, I learned. The first was made obvious to me when I was 19 and picked up my first sales job selling exercise electronics at Best Buy. If I think a product is a piece of literal garbage, I can’t sell it. I feel icky even trying to. It’s dishonest, and wrong to sell something you think is a bad product. So I failed in that job, and thank goodness. Valuable lesson.

What I learned is that the same kind of internal resistance can happen even if I try to sell a product or service without personally using it myself to vouch for it. I had done GAP’s Awaken Training. I could vouch for that.

In my head, “selling” that wouldn’t even require “selling” – it would be more of an organic effort to understand if they’re ready to change their lives in a certain area and helping them see a solution to get there.

But as for Transformational Leadership – I hadn’t experienced it. If I haven’t experienced it, I don’t definitively know it’s valuable. Even though I have reason to suspect it’s valuable, that’s not enough for me to be 110% all-in. So I felt hesitant and resistant to suggest it to my friends. Even still, I got several people interested. But I self-sabotaged the efforts by not following-up.

Conflict Avoidance Breeds Resentment, Fear, and Hurt

I let my internal resistance fester into minor resentment. Rather than getting excited that my team was succeeding in getting people they care about to come to the training, it reminded me of my own failure, and made me feel bad. I told our team’s coach several times that not being 100% bought-in was an issue. She would talk to me, and I’d be temporarily bought-in, but then the same resistance would creep back. Eventually, my internal sense of resistance became an ongoing anxiety and fear that I’m being inauthentic or manipulating people. I grew resentful of the process, and stopped reaching out to recruit people entirely.

I abruptly bailed on attending our final group call, and irreversibly fucked up the group dynamic.

More humility.

This had really negative consequences for my team mates and our momentum.

This experience has revealed to me a certain pattern of conflict avoidance which I am now 110% dead-set on combating.

Up until now, when I feel dissatisfaction in any relationship, I have buried it to keep the peace. I feared people disliking me, and the damage that conflict could bring to my relationships. In my household growing up, conflict was to be avoided almost at any cost – it was so frequent that I developed a hyper-aversion to it.

Unfortunately, I am still human, and negative emotions which are buried just come up later. In the case of my conflict avoidance, I would suddenly take drastic measures to cut people out of my life rather than simply address the facets of my relationships which were not working for me. The effect was always the same: the person would feel baffled, betrayed, and hurt. Some still wanted to be in relationship, others didn’t. In every case, my conflict avoidance strategy actually caused more conflict and suffering than a direct confrontation would have early on.

In an odd synchronistic coincidence, I double-scheduled a therapy session on top of our last group call. I chose to attend therapy. In therapy, I discussed why I didn’t attend the group call, and worked with the part of me that is adverse to conflict.

The things that you do and you don’t do are far more important than you think.

That’s a favorite Jordan Peterson quote of mine.

Doing this really fucked with the heads of my team. I was incredibly selfish to abruptly cut off communication (which I promptly resumed by calling the team after therapy and apologizing directly). I did so in a very passive aggressive way, a repeat of old patterns I experienced in childhood. It really hurt the feelings of one team member in particular, whom I’ll work with to make amends beyond mere apology in the near future.

Exiting any relationship, community, organization, or group leaves a void impossible to fill as you uniquely did.

This is where taking the nuclear approach to exiting situations goes awry. It’s extremely selfish and hurtful. Imagine for a moment that you’re on a soccer team, and your goalie suddenly yells “screw you guys, I’m going home!” – and exits stage left.

Your team is left wide open and vulnerable. They have to repurpose existing resources just to fill the gap. It makes all their lives measurably more stressful. They feel resentment. It causes an emotional drain for everyone you were involved with. It’s a lose-lose to sacrifice others, particularly those close to you or on the same team as you, for your own short-term emotional comfort.

There is a certain arrogance in abruptly leaving a team, too. It’s like saying “Screw you, I don’t need you. I’m taking my ball and going home – consequences to you be damned!”. Not acceptable. When I understood that’s how it felt, I committed to never do that again to someone.

In the end, I fulfilled all of my clerical duties, helped to set up the event, and did contribute 2 members to the training. I learned a LOT from the volunteering experience, and the training itself was phenomenal.

Learning from Mistakes

I failed my team members in a very critical way that caused harm to them.

I also served them throughout the whole process and was a valuable member of the team. That’s not a contradiction; both facts are true.

In terms of legacy, the former will be remembered by them more acutely than the latter. And that’s 100% my fault, and solely my responsibility. Within that problem lies an opportunity to solve it by making amends. And I’ll seek to do that in the coming weeks. I am very grateful to GAP, my team members, and my mother and friend who attended the training.

I will volunteer for similar experiences and organizations in the future.