Was It Something I Said? The Flip Side of “Said the Wrong Thing” Worries
Dear Nicholas, A man I talked with on a bus in 1970 emailed to tell me that something I said on that ride kept him alive in a life raft decades later in brutal cold 400 miles east of Gander, Newfoundland. You can imagine how flattered and stunned I was. One of my most troubling obsessions is memories and fears and fierce tenacious guilt over having said the wrong thing, even of having thought “the wrong thing” going back to times when I was a small child.
His astonishing email turned that fear inside out–at least momentarily. I felt in a gut way that none of us can ever fully know or control the effects we have on others. And that for all the “wrong things” I may have said in my life, I apparently unwittingly said one thing that was really right.
I’m going to tell this story even though it’s not entirely mine to tell. And I now can’t locate the man who wrote me about this a few years back so that I can get his permission. I have the impulse now because I found a copy of his email in my mother’s papers after her death–I’d sent her a copy. Guess I never did quit trying to impress Mom–plus she and my father worked very hard to make it possible for me to be on that bus that day.
The conversation took place on a rainy gray spring afternoon my senior year at Duke. I got on the bus that runs between East and West campuses. It was almost empty, but I saw a guy I’d shared a few English classes with, a tall lanky quiet boy. I slung myself into the seat beside him.
We knew each other’s names, had had a few brief conversations, and that was the total of our acquaintance. In the course of that ride he told me he’d just been accepted to Columbia Journalism School–but he didn’t really want to go.
In his email, he told me I was amazed that he wasn’t excited about this and said in effect “‘why don’t you just try it? It could be a good thing for you.'”
The Repeating Conversation
I don’t know what he decided about grad school. He didn’t say.
But, he said, he began having a recurring dream about that conversation on the bus. Over a thirty year period, it came at times when he faced making a life-changing decision. In the dreams, the message always was, in his words: “‘do it, you moron, don’t be afraid to act.'”
He became a commercial fisherman, which is what took him to those icy waters so many years later. When the boat ran into trouble, there wasn’t even time to radio the Canadian Coast Guard. There wasn’t another boat within hundreds of miles.
No Help in Reach
He and eight other men took to the life raft.
“Over the next three days, I watched them freeze to death, one by one, and I was at the point where I was ready to say ‘fuck it’ and give up, too, and then there you were, although that was more of a hallucination than a dream and it made me determined to live (if you’re curious, seven died, two survived).”
The way he saw it, the recurring dream connected to “something subconscious” in him that helped him decide.
When I got that email, I did remember the conversation and perhaps that’s notable. Yet I would never have guessed it could have had such an impact. It was close to graduation and I don’t think I ever ran into him again after that day.
Said the Wrong Thing?
I’d like to be able to use this story as an antidote to the “said the wrong thing” anguish that’s still a part of my mostly-medicated OCD.
We never really know for sure what was the wrong thing and what was the right thing. Something subconscious in me has a hard time accepting that.
But I’m so glad my fellow English major survived his North Atlantic ordeal.
I hope he is still well and is okay with my telling our story. I’m grateful that he let me know.
And you– thanks for listening to this. My writing it down will help me remember.
Tags: afraid to act, Canadian Coast Guard, Columbia Journalism School, determined to live, do it, Duke, Gander, hallucination, help me remember, impress Mom, know for sure, life-changing decision, medicated OCD, Newfoundland, recurring dream, saved life, something I said, subconscious, the right thing, troubling obsessions, try it
Peggy, this is beautiful. I love all the visuals too, they really add!
I too have this terrible shame that I either have said, or am about to say, something destructive and wrong. Hmmm. Writers fearing this. . . You have parsed this well in this post, and the joy of finding that one has something of quite a lot of value to contribute, well, that’s what many of us writers (and speakers) want so very much. A therapist of mine once said to me that I was “dying to communicate” —— I’m not sure I can figure out the living and dying part here, but I do believe here in our wisdom (yes, this word is used with irony + seriousness ) years, we should in fact “go for it,” as you say here. . . Yrs, Amey
Amey– I propose a pact. If I start to beat up on myself about something said wrong, I’ll remind myself that neither one of us needs to waste our passion this way.
I’m so glad you got such intense and wonderful news Peggy, and that you shared it. I’ve spent about 50 years working at making a positive difference in folks’ lives, and I know how good I feel when I know that’s happened – never in so dramatic a way as your news.
And I hope you can permanently hang onto the good feelings, knowing what a profound effect you had without intending or knowing till long after. That should far more than make up for the times you said, or might have said , the wrong thing to someone who likely doesn’t remember that at all.
Thanks, Bob. As you know, I feared that posting it would seem simply self-aggrandizing. And of course I am bragging a bit here, but writing the story, most any story, gets me to the meaning and motive and potential usefulness underneath.
No, it’s not bragging, it’s a wonderful human connection story. Your friend had hours out on the sea to rifle through all sorts of anecdotes in his life. He probably promised himself out there that if he made it, he would thank you for your words of encouragement. Good job, all!
I like thinking of this as a human connection story, C. Sjodin. Thanks for this. I feel curiously lighter tonight for having written it.
How wonderful to know that you have had this impact on a fellow human. I would like to think that there is someone out there who remembers something I said as a catalyst to action in his/her life – but no one has ever told me. Good for you!
I so appreciate that he let me know, Judy. And what a story he has….
Thanks for telling us the story, Peggy. I have often wondered in these last 10 years or so why I remember the bad things I said and did more than the good things? Is it a product of age? I don’t remember being this way before and I grew up with such a positive mother and father that I find this very disconcerting!
Good to hear from you, Marjorie! I hadn’t thought of this “wrong thing” worry as a product of age since I’ve always had it. But I can see how it could be a function of looking back, which may tend to increase with age. This conversation is making me more resolute to stop this kind of ruminating. Often when I’ve apologized years later for some dumb thing I said, the person I said it to has no memory of the moment at all. The answer obviously is staying in the present or looking ahead. Not always easy to do.
What a wonderful story, Peggy. And how glad you must be that you were able to have such a positive impact on your friend’s life. I’m sure I never said anything that profound on the bus between East and West campuses. It’s touching that your friend sought you out so many years later to let you know what your encouragement meant to him. Too often we don’t tell people when their words or gestures make a difference in our outlooks on life.
Sally, you may very well have said something on that bus that had a lasting impact. We never know… Or usually don’t. This guy was so good to find me and let me know.
Peggy- What would your reaction be if he told
you the only reason he was on that boat was the advice you gave him on that bus? How does the death of seven good folk balance his desire to live because you told him to just try it? If his email had said because of your statement he had faced death and witnessed death, would you have felt any guilt? I hope not. I wonder in its history, how many people who attended arguably the best journalism school in the country ultimately became boat captains in the North Atlantic. I confess to having written this from a negative perspective, but I have enough Camus and Sartre in me to think none of it made any difference. Isn’t this a little like God saved the life of the one survivor of a plane crash-pilot error was blamed for the death of the other 325? Actually, I think he was smitten with you and was trying to find an entree into your life.
Ron, I always welcome your interesting perspective, negative or not. I think the guy made his own decisions, drew from his own inner resources and that my comment had become a handy key to his resources. He said as much. I was flattered that he remembered my comment and made use of it.
I don’t think he was ever smitten with me– he never asked me out and has never contacted me again after that one email. I sure don’t think his survival balances in any way the deaths of the others; neither he nor I made that argument.
The episode matters to me because it felt good to know he thought I’d helped him. And because it was such a dramatic reverse on my more characteristic experience of feeling or fearing that I’ve said something damaging. And it’s a helpful reminder of all that I couldn’t possibly plan and don’t control.
Peggy- Isn’t this similar to “God saved the life of the one survivor of the crash-pilot error killed the other 347 on board”? If he had brayed you for encouraging to take chances, would you have felt responsible? I hope not! I have enough Camus and Sartre in me to question whether any of these events had any cause and effect relation to any other. I think he was looking through his Duke year book, came across your picture and was smitten. But how to approach you after all these years-thank you for saving the life of possibly the only Duke grad to be accepted in the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University and ultimately become a ship’s captain in the North Atlantic where it’s cold. I’m being a contrarian, but I think the most relevant avent was the manner in which you slung yourself into the seat beside him.
the North Atlantic
Well, no doubt the slinging was a bold move, Ron.
Great story. I’m a believer that when a person is at point of readiness, on the brink of understanding something, solving a problem, or making a change, then the right word or the right phrasing can be the thing that tips the scale. Sometimes a visual image will do that, too, but I think that for “word” people, among whom I count myself although I’m not a writer, the word, the phrase, the voice can be especially powerful when the ground it falls on is fertile. How grand that you were the one who delivered to this man the phrase he needed and that something in him knew how to hang onto that for other times he needed it.
Yes, the timing is crucial. Seems to me, Lee, that this is something therapists do in a conscious and purposeful way. For this man, I think the recurring thought or dream acted as a hypnotic cue to put him in touch with a fuller range of the inner resources he had all along.