The River

The River

Dear ECWO Readers,

Events that have happened to us in the past and the feelings we carry about these past events can impact our state of mind, our actions, and even our health. Yet many of us carry emotional baggage with us for days, weeks and even years without being conscious of this truism. Last month I addressed a group of women and asked them if they would share an event from their past that they found difficult to let go.  One woman described an incident from two years prior when a promotion opportunity became available at her company. She applied for the position but did not receive it because the job was given to another woman within her team.  She felt betrayed.  She had discussed the promotion opportunity with her peers but this team member did not reciprocate and state that she was also applying for the position.  The feeling that the promotion was “taken from her” resulted in her leaving the company because she did not want to work for this person. I mean “how could you trust someone like that” was voiced.

There is this wonderful story (told in numerous ways) of two monks walking together on their way to a distant monastery when they come to a river they need to cross. Sitting beside the river is an immaculately dressed young woman who is crying. She needs to cross the river to attend her sister’s wedding but the oarsman has departed and her outfit will be ruined if she attempts to wade across. She appeals to the monks to help her. The younger monk, who appreciates that his faith precludes him from touching a woman, refuses. The older monk lifts the woman onto his shoulders to carry her safely across the river.  As they continue onto the monastery, the younger monk keeps talking about the incident and the affront to their faith that he believes the older monk has perpetrated. Over and over again he repeats the question: “Why did you carry that woman, you know our religion does not allow us to touch women”? This continues on for the days it takes to reach the monastery. Just before they enter, the older monk turns to the younger and says: “I carried that young woman for about fifteen minutes to help her cross a river. You have been carrying her with you for days! Which one of us has been more distracted from the pursuit of our higher aspirations and faith?”

I love this story because it reminds me that we have choice. We have choice not only with respect to how we deal with events and situations that we are confronted with, but also about how we internalize and learn from them afterwards. The questions we must ask ourselves are: Does continuing to mull over the incident or the perceived slight increase or decrease our emotional reserves? Does our intended response advance or retard our aspirations and agenda? For the woman I described above, being passed over for promotion resulted in her leaving a job she liked and, possibly more importantly, carrying the burden of betrayal around for two years in a way that may have impacted subsequent decisions and relationships of hers.  On the other hand, the woman who received the promotion probably has not given the matter a second thought. She likely feels she fully deserved the position and has been focusing on proving this to be true since then!

Emotional response to things that happen is often good. Our emotions help guide us when we have to make key decisions. They should not swamp analytical approaches but they should not be ignored either. However, I would definitely challenge all my readers to reflect upon the following:

Are there memories of past instances in your life that you continue to carry around emotionally? Do they cumulate and become heavier and heavier when making decisions and having to take action today? Or, have you managed to channel these emotional reflections into lessons that help you make better decisions and engage in smarter actions? In other words, have you been able to transform your emotional baggage into a tool bag that can be an aide and support for your path ahead rather than an emotional drain?

The world needs far more women at the highest levels of organizations. Achieving this requires that each of us works through real and perceived offenses we have experienced.  We need to transform this negative energy into a positive force (or strength) and use that to help other women become more powerful as individuals and collectively. We have to learn how to celebrate each other’s promotions.  We have to learn how to sponsor one another for jobs. We have to learn how to lift each other up otherwise nothing much will change and we will still be in the same place in ten years’ time.

I challenge you to transform some of your emotional baggage into positive lessons, aides and tool bags for the future. What cannot be transformed in this way should be dumped into the river that our monks and the young woman crossed so long ago!

Dianne Bevelander MBA, PhD
Professor of Management Education
Executive Director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations