Looking at the Bigger Picture
Family means the world to me. I came from a relatively small family as both of my parents were only children. My closest relatives were first cousins once removed, second cousins, and second cousins once removed. None of them lived in the same city where I grew up, so it was only when I entered college that I met and became close to those on my father’s side of the family.
From day one these newfound cousins welcomed me with open arms, and I am forever grateful. Which is why it pains me to see families who become estranged over simple things that get compounded over time. To be fair, it is easy to sum it up like this when you are an outsider looking in, but it still leaves me wondering how I would have reacted if the same situation happened to me in my family.
Recently someone close to me (I will refer to him as Sam) shared this story that gave me a new perspective on dealing with challenging relationships. Sam is one of three brothers who suddenly lost their father about two years ago. At the time, their parents were separated which made the tragic death more devastating for each child. As close as these brothers were, they grieved in vastly different ways creating resentment and anger between them.
During COVID, Sam’s relationship with his oldest brother became more challenging to the point where they stopped speaking. Sam did everything he could to rekindle their bond (including seeking support from a therapist) to no avail. I just wanted to shake some sense into each of them as this continued to drag on.
Just last week, Sam shared with me that he and his oldest brother had begun speaking again. When I asked what had changed, Sam was not sure but had a hunch. You see, his brother is a doctor who lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and three-year-old daughter. During COVID, Sam’s brother was on the front lines and fearful he might expose his family to the virus and living in cramped quarters.
Whether it was insight gained from therapy or just plain hindsight, Sam chalked the rift up to a combination of dealing with their dad’s death and the added strain caused by COVID. Sam made an intentional decision to move forward and not revisit the past to preserve the relationship. Sam’s smile was further evidence that “blood is thicker than water.”
The past five years have put relationships of all kinds to the test like never in my lifetime. The election of 2016 was the first body blow as family members, colleagues, and friends duked it out as the then new administration flexed its muscles.
For me personally, I watched in utter horror as long-fought advances in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people started getting stripped away one at a time. As someone who worked for decades tirelessly alongside countless activists to secure parity in the workplace and at the altar, the repeated gut punches were emotionally and physically debilitating.
All I had to do was look at Facebook with people in my stream to see the toll political discourse was having on friends and family member because their politics ran counter to their values. In an instant, decades-long relationships came to an abrupt and ugly end. My perspective on the great divide shifted while attending a 2017 workplace diversity conference in Minneapolis.
There was a panel discussion moderated by CNN’s Van Jones about the current political environment and how it was impacting workplace culture. One of the panelists was NBC national reporter Jacob Rascon, who was assigned to cover Trump rallies during the election season. Rascon described his typical day of arriving a few hours before the start of a rally and interviewing attendees as they arrived.
What he said next made a lasting impression on my outlook on life. Jacob said that almost without exception the people he spoke with at the time were not evil or even hateful people. “The media branded those who attend these rallies as Trump Supporters but from my vantage point, these were people who happened to support Trump,” Rascon added.
His point was clear: too many Democrats assumed they had nothing in common with Trump voters without even trying to find out. The result is the painfully divided country we all live in today. What’s worse is that COVID further cemented in place the already deeply divided lines.
My decision to become an executive coach has provided not only a coping mechanism but a way forward that helps me keep my sanity and health. Instead of dwelling on what I cannot control, I have made the intentional decision to focus on what I can control: my reaction to these situations. ▼
Wesley Combs, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a diversity and inclusion expert, executive coach, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.