Let me tell you a secret: when I first came to L’Arche in June of 2007, I got paired up the ‘wrong’ person. At least, that’s what I thought.
I arrived at L’Arche Ontario home in a time of transition. As such, many of the people with intellectual disabilities who lived in the Ontario home needed new accompaniers. (To be someone’s accompanier makes you the ‘point person’ for everything from their medical appointments to their taxes to their toothpaste.) At first, it seemed that I was going to be paired with Vincent*. I was happy with that idea. Vincent felt like a surrogate grandpa: supportive and kind. I’ve always felt at ease around him.
I didn’t get paired with Vincent, however. I got paired with Leo.
To understand how I took the news, you have to understand how I perceived Leo initially. Leo is the founding member of the L’Arche Greater Washington DC Community. He has a loud voice, a slight speech impediment and a tendency to jump from one topic to another without segue. All these things make it difficult for people who don’t know him well to understand him. Leo is a stickler for detail. As a newbie, I felt like I’d never measure up to the level of wizardry I saw the experienced assistants exhibit. He’s also a die-hard Republican, with a very ‘traditional’ view of men’s and women’s roles and abilities and a razor-sharp memory for historical facts and family trees. (Note: I lack all of these things. Completely.)
Leo loves to play pranks on new assistants when they’re learning routines. (He’ll turn the lights off on you, lock you in the bathroom and toss his towel over your head…all while giggling manically.) And Leo wasn’t thrilled with the thought of me as his accompanier. He’d been hoping for a male accompanier, and he got me. A double-whammy of disappointment all around.
In short, I was intimidated both by Leo himself and by the task of accompanying him. I wanted something easier.
What helped me to move forward? First, owning my anger, which meant letting it all out in my journal. This led me to see that the anger itself was a mask for my fear…fear that I wouldn’t be a good accompanier for Leo. The unexpected accompaniment pairing had me calling my entire personal identity into question…all because I was afraid.
~If you’re angry today, what fear might your anger be a mask for?
Next, realizing that I’d need to adjust my expectations in going forward. Instead of an instant comfort, I’d have to work hard for every moment of connection with Leo. I’d have to figure out how to be true to myself and also forge a connection with this person I perceived as ‘other’. (Which, by the way, is a foundational principle of L’Arche– in welcoming and drawing close to those we perceive as ‘other’, we realize our common ground and become more truly ourselves in the process.)
~How much of your anger is a result of unrealistic expectations?
And then came a turning point: I allowed my initial anger to transform itself, it turned into defiance and determination. I started to want something more challenging. I thought, “If this is the person I’m paired with, I’m going to do my utmost to make it work.” My attitude started to change. It also helped to realize that others didn’t perceive Leo the way I did. When one of my best friends visited, she perceived Leo as, “Adorable! Like a teddy bear!” (A direct quote.)
~If you allowed it, how might your anger transform itself into new energy?
Leo and I began with books, because that was our most visible point of commonality. I’d read with Leo day after day, because in reading I felt competent. Talking with him didn’t feel comfortable, but reading with him I could handle.
We read and read. And somewhere down the line, we started talking. And I started appreciating his way of being: how he pointed out purple flowers on the side of the road; his unique insights; how he’d clap his hands when he was excited; his quirky sense of humor; the way he’d express his respect for me in subtle but significant ways. The day he first saluted me (a gesture he typically reserves for males), I felt like I’d won the lottery. Time, perseverance and a change of attitude all paid off.
We grew to respect one another, realizing that our accompaniment pairing was actually a stroke of genius. I’m very detail-oriented, and this sets Leo’s mind at ease. Leo is someone who takes time and patience to get to know well…and I love to dig for treasure. Ironically enough, over a year after I received Leo’s accompaniment, I was fighting tooth and nail to keep that assignment. I didn’t want to let go of the role that had become so much a part of my life.
Though my role has changed, Leo and I continue to accompany one another through life. Every week, when we sit down to read together, I’m reminded that (as stated on the TV show Psych): “The best things, the richest things, are the things that don’t come easy.”
What do we read? At present, Leo and I are about two-thirds of the way through an 850+ page biography of Stephen A. Douglas…one we started reading over three years ago.
Yes, we’re persistent and stubborn…and we’re going to see it through to the very last page.
Have you ever been matched with the ‘wrong’ person ~ in your workplace or family? What did you do with that anger? Tell me in the comments!