Bring proper closure to relational encounters and events

closure4Beginnings are important. First impressions, initial greetings, the commencement of a trip—how something starts is important. The “front door” is critical.

But we should also carefully negotiate endings—that is, how to properly close the “back door” of a relational encounter or event. A proper ending will enhance the experience and bring good closure. A mishandled ending can be awkward and leave a bitter aftertaste.

For instance, how could proper closure be negotiated in each of these situations?

  • A phone conversation
  • A valued employee leaving an organization after having worked there for many years
  • When leaving your house in the morning, leaving behind family members
  • A staff meeting
  • A lunch meeting with a friend
  • A major project
  • A vacation with friends

Thoughts to ponder:

  • When was the last time you botched a farewell?
  • When was the last time you intentionally orchestrated a proper farewell?
  • Identify a time in your life when you were personally disappointed by a botched farewell.
  • Identify a time in your life when you were blessed by a proper farewell.

An excerpt from the novel—Life of Pi by Yann Martel—provides a vivid illustration of a botched farewell.

Here’s the setting: Following a shipwreck, a young boy named Pi has been on a life-raft for 200+ days with a tiger named Richard Parker. They have developed an interesting and, in some ways, close relationship. The raft finally washes ashore, but the closure of their relationship is awkward and disappointing.

A Disappointing Farewell

When we reached land, Mexico to be exact, I was so weak I barely had the strength to be happy about it. We had great difficulty landing. The lifeboat nearly capsized in the surf. I streamed the sea anchors—what was left of them—full open to keep us perpendicular to the waves, and I tripped them as soon as we began riding a crest. In this way, streaming and tripping the anchors, we surfed in to shore. It was dangerous. But we caught one wave at just the right point and it carried us a great distance, past the high, collapsing walls of water. I tripped the anchors a last time and we were pushed in the rest of the way. The boat hissed to a halt against the sand.

I let myself down the side. I was afraid to let go, afraid that so close to deliverance, in two feet of water, I would drown. I looked ahead to see how far I had to go. The glance gave me one of my last images of Richard Parker, for at that precise moment he jumped over me. I saw his body, so immeasurably vital, stretched in the air above me, a fleeting, furred rainbow. He landed in the water, his back legs splayed, his tail high, and from there, in a few hops, he reached the beach. He went to the left, his paws gouging the wet sand, but changed his mind and spun around. He passed directly in front of me on his way to the right. He didn’t look at me. He ran a hundred yards or so along the shore before turning in. His gait was clumsy and uncoordinated. He fell several times. At the edge of the jungle, he stopped. I was certain he would turn my way. He would look at me. He would flatten his ears. He would growl. In some such way, he would conclude our relationship. He did nothing of the sort. He only looked fixedly into the jungle. Then Richard Parker, companion of my torment, awful, fierce thing that kept me alive, moved forward and disappeared forever from my life.

I struggled to shore and fell upon the sand. I looked about. I was truly alone, orphaned not only of my family, but now of Richard Parker, and nearly, I thought, of God. Of course, I wasn’t. This beach, so soft, firm and vast was like the cheek of God and somewhere two eyes were glittering with pleasure and a mouth was smiling at having me there.
After some hours a member of my own species found me. He left and returned with a group. They were six or seven. They came up to me with their hands covering their noses and mouths. I wondered what was wrong with them. They spoke to me in a strange tongue. They pulled the lifeboat onto the sand. They carried me away. The one piece of turtle meat I had brought from the boat they wrenched from my hand and threw away.

I wept like a child. It was not because I was overcome at having survived my ordeal, though I was. Nor was it the presence of my brothers and sisters, though that too was very moving. I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. When we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. It’s important to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day. I wish so much that I’d had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I’d provoked him a little, so that I was on his mind. I wish I had said to him then—yes, I know, to a tiger, but still—I wish I had said, “Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived. Can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude than I can express. I couldn’t have done it without you. I would like to say it formally: Richard Parker, thank you. Thank you for saving my life. And now go where you must. You have known the confined freedom of a zoo most of your life; now you will know the free confinement of a jungle. I wish you all the best with it. Watch out for Man. He is not your friend. But I hope you will remember me as a friend. I will never forget you, that is certain. You will always be with me, in my heart. What is that hiss? Ah, our boat has touched sand. So farewell, Richard Parker, farewell. God be with you.” [Martel, Y. (2001). Life of Pi, Harcourt Books, pp. 284-286]

The next time you approach the ending to a significant encounter or event, carefully orchestrate a good ending.

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Don’t say this to someone who is hurting

Empathy3Where have you been? the mother demanded. The little girl replied, “On my way home, I met a friend who was crying because she had broken her doll.” “Oh,” said her mother, “then you stopped to help her fix the doll?” “Oh, no,” replied the little girl, “I stopped to help her cry.”


When someone is hurting, do not respond with:

  • Advice/instruction – “Let me tell you how to solve the problem.” Or, “The next time that happens you should…”
  • Logic/reasoning – “Let me analyze the situation and tell you why it happened.” Or, “I think the reason that happened was because…”
  • Pep talk – “You’re a winner! You’ll make it through these tough times!” Or, “I’m sure tomorrow will be a better day.”
  • Minimize the incident – “Sure it hurt, but get things into perspective; there’s a lot going on that’s good.” Or, “Aren’t you being overly sensitive?”
  • Anger – “That makes me so mad! They shouldn’t get away with that!” (Angry at who caused the hurt.) Or, “I’m so upset that you keep getting yourself hurt.” (Angry at the one who is hurting.)
  • Martyr’s complex – “I had something similar happen to me.” Or, “After the kind of day I had, let me tell you what hurt really feels like.”
  • Personal fear/anxiety – “I’m afraid that’s going to affect my life too.”
  • Mr. “Fix it” – “I can’t believe that salesman talked to you like that. I’m calling the store right now and talking to his boss.” Or, “I know you must have been scared when you had a flat tire on that lonely road. Tomorrow I’ll take the car in and get a whole new set of tires.”
  • Spiritualizing – “Well, you know that God will work all this out for your good.” Or, “Remember what Joseph said when his brothers mistreated him: ‘They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.’”

The best antidote for hurt is comfort. Comfort is an emotion, not a cerebral commodity. It is also very simple; if we make it complicated, we’ll miss the mark.

We can comfort others through gentle words, appropriate touch, and our quiet presence.

Gentle words

While there are many words in the Oxford Dictionary, only about 40-50 words qualify as comforting words. The “vocabulary of comfort” includes phrases like these:

  • “I’m really sorry that you’re hurting.”
  • “It hurts me that you’re hurting because I love you and care for you.”
  • “It saddens me that you felt _________ (embarrassed, rejected, belittled). I know that must have hurt you.”

When comforting someone, the fewer words spoken, the better. If we say too much, we will inevitably move into the cognitive, rational realm, which will be counterproductive.

When speaking words of comfort, it’s also important that our tone of voice be complementary to what is being said. Words of comfort should be spoken gently and with compassion.

Appropriate touch

Proper and tender acts of physical affection can also minister comfort. Depending on the relationship, a warm embrace, a hug, holding hands, or a kiss can help communicate care and concern.

Quiet presence

Sometimes, just being with a person who is hurting is helpful. When I was a young minister, I wasn’t sure what to say to someone who had just lost a loved one. A wise mentor taught me that the “ministry of your presence” is powerful and effective. Just being physically present communicates care and concern.

So when you encounter someone who is hurting, do not do the nine items listed at the beginning of this essay. Do extend comfort. You’ll be amazed at the outcome.

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Pursue excellence

ExcellenceExcellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. —John Gardner

Librettist and theatrical producer Oscar Hammerstein II once remarked on an aerial photo of the Statue of Liberty taken from a helicopter. He described how the photo revealed finely etched strands of hair atop the head of Lady Liberty, details placed there by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.

It’s important to remember that the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886, almost two decades before the Wright brothers’ first flight. In those days, no one believed that human beings would ever be able to fly over the statue and look down on the top of Lady Liberty’s head. Yet Bartholdi refused to cut corners with his sculpture. He paid attention to the little things, to the fine details he thought no one would ever see” (from Coach Wooden’s Greatest Secret by Williams and Robinson, pg. 119).

Pursuing excellence means always doing your best. But it also implies that your best will be better than the norm.

Here are some key factors in pursuing excellence.

  • Pay attention to details. The pursuit of excellence will always involve an obsessive infatuation with details. Famous American designer Charles Eames said, “Details are not the details. They make the design.” Everything that exists is a compilation of details; pay attention to them.
  • Take the time to get it right. Picasso used up no less than eight notebooks just for preliminary sketches of his revolutionary painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It takes a lot of time to fill eight notebooks with sketches but he wanted to get it right so the time he did take.
  • Try to “do it once, do it right” but if the end product is inferior, be willing to “do it again to get it right.” Excellence can be obtained on the first attempt, but if it isn’t, be willing to stay with it.
  • Embrace the concept of continuous improvement. In the 1960s and 1970s, W. Edwards Deming developed and introduced his quality-improvement methods into Japanese manufacturing. In two decades, Japanese products, which had been referred to as “Jap scrap,” became synonymous with “quality” and “super-engineering.” These quality improvement methods took Japan, within one generation, from a country that had been completely destroyed in 1945 to the number two economic power in the world. This transformation was built on the Japanese process called “kaizen” which means “continuous betterment” or “continuous improvement.” Never be content with the way things are; continually strive to make things better. Adopt the mindset that everything is a work in progress; incremental improvements will always be made.
  • Be knowledgeable of benchmarks—they reveal how excellence is defined in any given area. Excellence is gauged by comparing an outcome with the generally accepted benchmark for that particular result. That’s why achieving excellence demands more than just doing the best we can do; our product must exceed standards that are established by others.
  • Realize that excellence is an end unto itself. We should draw deep satisfaction from a job well done. Even if no one else notices or acknowledges our striving toward excellence, it will be its own reward. A job well done is very gratifying.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Pursue excellence.

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Allow for exceptions to rules

rulesAfter returning to Earth from the first manned mission to the Moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts were required to comply with the rules of international (or in this case, interplanetary) travel. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins had to go through customs at the Honolulu Airport.

The three astronauts went through the same process as any other travelers returning to the United States. They stood in line for customs and had to fill out the standard form listing what they brought back from their trip (moon rock and moon dust samples) their flight information (Apollo 11), and their route (Cape Kennedy, Florida to Honolulu, Hawaii, with a layover on the moon).

I am not making this up; it really happened.

Most often, rules and policies are developed either to standardize reoccurring events or to control misbehavior. I understand that, but sometimes rules need to yield to good sense and sound judgment.

The first time Mary and I visited Copenhagen, Denmark, we were finishing a 12-day cruise of the Baltic states. We disembarked the ship at 7:30 a.m. and went directly to the hotel where we would stay for the next two nights. We were told that there were no rooms available because they were being cleaned. Okay, that’s reasonable. We would wait in the lobby for the first available room.

Several hours later I inquired again and got the same answer, “The rooms have not been cleaned.”

Several hours later I walked through the hotel and discovered that most of the rooms were now cleaned and ready. When I mentioned that to the desk-clerk, he said, “Check-in is at three p.m.” “But the rooms are ready now,” I implored. His set-in-concrete reply was, “Check-in is at three p.m.”

Argh! We waited eight hours in the lobby and were finally given the key to a room at…3:00 p.m. (We would have toured the city during the time we were waiting for a room but it was a national holiday and everything was closed.) The hotel’s not-well-thought-out but strictly enforced policy created unnecessary inconvenience for its clientele.

View rules as guidelines, not as commandments carved in stone brought down from Mt. Sinai. Make exceptions to rules when commonsense requires it.

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