Sometimes in pain promises are made that should not be kept.  “I am never speaking to you again.”  “Don’t darken my doorstep.”   “My attorney will contact yours.”  They are words hurled through anger, glass walls and shattered dreams, meant to inflict immediate pain, immediate reaction.  In some sort of perverse logic, the words are meant to instill self-courage, the courage needed to move forward.

And, in pain, forward motion is made, but always with the hole left by the regret fueled pride that takes over after anger fades.  “I am not going to call her.”   “If he wants to see me, he knows where I live.”  “I’ve not sued them…yet.”   The words become a line in the sand, and often reason falls to the pressure of being ‘right’ and life is lived in a new way, but with something missing. 

I didn’t know that kind of promise had been made as the participants stepped into Canvas Creek recently.  I didn’t know there were fear, anger, hatred, and deep consuming pain hidden behind the nerves of one participant.  All I could see was that being given the task to begin the canvas was more than she could muster.  I’d asked her to do something she could not do, and she was standing in front of the people who only knew her as strong.  They never knew her to back down…to anything.  They never knew her to cry, to shake or to walk away from any challenge.  And there she was; doing all of those things, her ‘tough’ persona crumbling like walls full of dynamite. 

I am not afraid to admit to you, it scared the hell out of me.  I wanted to test this team, to stress them and to make them stronger, but I did not want to see collapse.  I did not want to delve that deep into one person; I simply wanted to build a team. 

As she backed away from the canvas, the team took over, they had been given a task and they did what good teams do, they re-grouped and moved forward to complete it.  As they worked, I held her hand, hugged her and felt the pissed off tears.  She whispered to me that she had not painted in 25 years, she had promised never to create again.  Her work team had no idea about the promise and she wanted it kept that way.  I let her know she could do what she needed to do, paint or not, be with the team, or observe the team, it would be okay.  As often happens in these cases, she did what she needed to do---and it was for the team.  It was something she could not do for herself. 

She stepped into the middle of the group and put paint on a canvas. 

While she stood in front of that canvas, in the middle of a group, she was more alone than anyone I have ever seen.  And while she painted she shook more violently than I have ever seen someone shake.  She looked to me for support, but I was not part of the team, I was only an observer, I could not give her more than a weak smile and nod. I was overcome with every emotion she was feeling, her misery felt like my misery, her fear was my fear. 

She painted a stilted, squiggly line that meant nothing, yet it meant everything and again she looked around for support.  This time she found it in a teammate who simply gave her thumbs up.  And that was just enough.  The group did what groups do; they instinctively knew that coming together, supporting each other was better than standing alone.  Together they could help their friend and paint this canvas.  There was a surge of energy that went through the room.  The pain fueled the creativity of everyone; it became a catalyst for a change in their dynamics.

As they grew into a new team our subject painted.  She cried.  She painted.  She smiled.  The music changed, It was powerful, thumping now and angry.  I gave her a big brush and permission to paint with red pain(t) across all that was on the canvas. Tentative at first, then laughing and letting 25 years fall away the red changed the canvas completely.  Her destroying of the ‘art’ the team had created made them fall back and reassess where they had been going.  Finally, they all laughed, threw up their arms and they painted with new emotion; using their hands, new colors and bigger brushes.  The original painting, the rudimentary shapes, were gone, replaced by splashes, textures and colors, a creation representing them as a whole, not individual people. 

The promise had been to a dead child, that she would never create art again, that she would give up that most treasured part of herself as life made her give him up, that most treasured part of a union. In the end, I asked her if it was the right promise to have made and she said “No” and laughed and said “I’m back and all I want to do is paint, I promise never to stop again.”

It was a promise the team will help her keep.  She began by stepping to that canvas for the team and with that step began a new chapter in her life.  In silence the team learned volumes; each time they look at the creation of their journey, her pain, thumbs up and red brush strokes, they will be strong and they will be together, an unspoken promise was made, a promise to be a team.  As a team they will give encouragement, laugh and to let one person’s private journey be the groups strength; a promise of better tomorrows. 

And that is the best sort of promise to keep, don’t you think?    

Copyright 2011  Karen Grosz and Canvas Creek Team Building