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A Friend Says Goodbye

In late August of 1979, I was still reeling from the accidental death of my fifteen-year-old son six months earlier. I decided to attend an Esalen “Radix” workshop in Big Sur, California. The Radix people believed if we allow unexpressed emotions to remain locked in our bodies muscular armor builds and restricts the flow of positive “Radix” energy (aka “Qi”) through our bodies. My hope was to emotionally unblock, get past the initial mourning stage (I could no longer cry) and free up some energy. 

The workshop leader was a fifty eight year old ex-businessman named Clair. He had attended a Radix workshop a few years earlier and the experience altered his life’s view. He left his high-powered sales management position, trained with Charles Kelly, the founder of Radix to become a certified Radix teacher.

As group leader, Clair was confident without being arrogant, empathetic without being unctuous and had an appealing old glove quality. I immediately trusted him and placed myself in his hands. It was a seven-day workshop and I was one of fourteen participants. Each day’s Radix therapy activities involved “mattress work” where we group members took turns lying on a mattress while Clair sensitively and effectively guided us through exercises designed to free up blocked emotions. The week was powerful and very helpful. I left feeling much more emotionally free and finally began to reawaken emotionally.

Because of our rich connection at the workshop, Clair and I became friends and have stayed in touch over the years by phone and by visits to his home in Ashland, Oregon when I attended plays at the Shakespeare festivals. A skilled carpenter and builder, he designed and built a round mountaintop home with a second story great-room which allowed a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. Clair is a generous host and staying at his mountain home has been both inspiring and comfortable.

After the challenge and satisfaction of building his mountaintop home wore off, Clair, fully retired and in his late seventies, invested all of his retirement savings in an old office building in downtown Ashland and then proceeded to  refurbish it. This included designing and opening an attractive and successful restaurant. It seemed that each time I visited Clair I discovered another of his talents. When I expressed concerned that he had risked all of his retirement security on such a venture. He responded to my concern, saying, “It’s all about risk. If there is no risk, there is no passion or excitement. I’m not willing to just stand around waiting to die, Ron.” These conversations with Clair, and the life style he was modeling, led me to question some of my values and led to important insights about living my life with more passion and risk. Clair was not only my friend; he was also teaching me by example.

One week ago, I received a phone call from Clair, now ninety-two years old. His voice is unmistakable and remarkably similar to that of the actor Alan Arkin—rich with authenticity and warmth. Clair opened our conversation by saying, “Ron, I’m calling you for a reason. Picture a Canadian goose about to land in a lake after a long, cross continental flight. He lands on the water smoothly and gracefully and prepares for a long rest. That is me. I’m in hospice now and I’m ready for the next step in this fantastic journey called life.” (Clair sprinkles all of his talk with such Esalen, “humpot” jargon—it is part of his charm) He explained he is in the final stages of prostate cancer, it has spread into his bones and he has fewer than six months to live.

He thanked me for my friendship and said he was calling those folks in his life with whom he had made a genuine, loving connection and I was on the list. I told him I was both honored and appreciative he had called. We talked for a while about life and how short and beautiful it is. He confessed he had always tried to live his live ethically but he had not always been emotionally available with those he loved. He wished he had been better at it but he was trying through these final phone calls to go out on a “real” note. I could hear the effects of the pain medication in his voice but he was lucid and totally present during the conversation.

Before he finished our call, he said, “I love you, Ron—you helped make the ride a special one.” I said, “I feel the same way, Clair.” As I hung up, I felt the tears and the pain build and experienced a peculiar mix of gratitude and sadness.

I have had two similar conversations with close friends. Like Clair, both had come to terms with their impending deaths and were able to say goodbye to those they loved. Each call was, to me, a gift. Yes—each was painful but I am grateful I had the opportunity to say goodbye to my friends. When my final days arrive I hope I have the opportunity and the courage to do the same with those I love.


Making a Judgment and Having an Opinion vs Being Judgmental and Opinionated

I was forced to clarify my thoughts about these terms when a judgmental, highly opinionated client got into a pickle with his son. He offers his son uninvited, negative, judgmental opinions about his behavior and choices and when the son tells my client he feels judged my client says, “It’s my opinion and I have the right to express it.” Thus, when confronted he hides behind his “right to have an opinion” which conveniently allows him to avoid looking at how painful his judgments are. As a result his son avoids him because to be in his company is often too punishing. In order to discuss this issue with my client I first had to get clear on the distinction between making a judgment and having an opinion versus being judgmental and being opinionated. Unless we define our terms these kinds of discussions can be difficult since such terms often have different meanings for different folks. 

I think opinions are beliefs not necessarily based on fact and are based more on preference. E.g., In my opinion Beefeaters Gin is tastier than Gordon’s Gin. I think a judgment is more apt to be based on facts—more like an assessment which takes information into consideration. A courtroom judge makes a judgment based on the evidence. E.g., “Given all the facts of the case, I think Mrs Jones still owns the automobile.” Or, in a more personal vein, E.g.,  “I have decided that buying a new car is not a wise use of money since I can get the same car one year later for 20% less.” But, to be “judgmental” as I understand the use of the adjective, is to tend to be more rigid about one’s beliefs and to be less open and perhaps even critical of opposing views. The same holds true for the term “opinionated.” These two adjectives, when we use them to describe someone, are usually attempts to make a general statement about the person’s pattern of interactive behavior. We use them in a behaviorally “predictive” way. 

The issue becomes even more difficult to clarify because non-verbal cues play a part in how opinions and judgments are interpreted. If I say, “I don’t like your blouse,” my non-verbal cues (tone of voice, facial expression, etc.) will color your interpretation of my meaning and therefore your response. That is, you may determine me to be both opinionated and judgmental if I speak with a sharp tone. 

Further, negative, uninvited opinions are almost always seen as judgmental. It is my experience that opinionated people are more apt to offer such uninvited feedback. It is also my experience that opinionated, judgmental people often hide behind the words “opinion” or “feeling” when they are called out about being judgmental. They will say, “I have the right to an opinion” and expect that to excuse their judgment. Or they will say, “I was only telling you my feelings,” when they were giving their opinion and not *sharing feelings. 

*(Clarification of sharing opinions versus sharing feelings: E.g., You were very selfish to eat all the shrimp.” This is not a feeling statement—it is name calling and an judgmental opinion. A feeling statement in this situation might be, “When you took all the shrimp off the dish and left me only vegetables I lost interest in eating the dish.” If you read my book, Play It By Ear: Improvise Your Way to Lasting Friendships, you’ll find a more complete explanation of  how to correctly express feelings) 

Most of us can be judgmental and opinionated at times but it is a pattern of interaction which can be problematic.  From this frame of reference I did ultimately ask my client the following question.  “Since you agree, based on my definition of the term, that you are opinionated, are you willing to examine whether or not it has negatively affected your relationship with your son?”  We are making headway.