I woke up in a Los Angeles hotel bed in the early hours of last Tuesday and picked up my phone to see it was 5am and I had a new email from an old friend.
Of course I opened it.
A minute later, I was crying. A week later, I’m still heartbroken over it.
The email provided a visceral reminder that people will vividly remember the day you broke their trust—and your perspective won’t matter the slightest in their mind. It provided another reminder as well: when people are involved, there’s no such thing as a business decision that isn’t also personal one.
The trouble with being in a position of leadership is you have to make decisions that affect others—and you’re damn well responsible for them.
I’ve made decisions in my life I regret—selfish decisions I’m ashamed of. But in this case, the decision I made which put me at the receiving end of this email was not in that category.
I don’t regret the decision—it was a hard one that I believe has proven to have had its intended result: the significant betterment of someone’s life and career. No, I don’t regret the decision, but I deeply, deeply regret the pain it caused the relationship.
Of course I responded to the email.
My reply was entirely driven by feelings. Part of it was exactly what I needed to say: with my whole heart, I said how sorry I was for the pain I’d caused and said that I cared a great deal. But another part of the reply was terribly stupid: I attempted to re-explain myself and my decision, my perspective then, and my reflection on it now. Stupid, of course, because the decision is done—convincing them of anything is not only unlikely, but unhelpful. As much as it’s temping to try, no amount of words through your keyboard or air through your larynx will clear things up for someone who’s been hurt by something you did.
I’m hopeful that trust will be rebuilt, but I’ve been on the other side of the fence: I know how hard it is to forgive someone for the hurt they’ve caused me. And by the time I’ve held on to it for a year, that’s a lot of practice not letting go. Grooves worn in pavement are not simply repaired.
A grudge is a sinister, deceptive thing. We think of it as being in our employ, a scab keeping those who’ve harmed us at safe distance while we heal, maybe even punishing them a bit in the process. But in reality, it’s an infection we’re protecting—and we’re the one it will always affect the most.
I’ve definitely been on the inside of those walls myself—and sometimes I’m still there, even as I’ve tried so hard to forgive and move on from injury caused by others.
There’s an old saying that returns to my mind often when anger and pain from ancient hurts seep into my soul: “Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free, then discovering that the prisoner was you.”
This may be true, but it’s sure not easy. Freeing myself as a prisoner from a grudge isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a choice again and again. And each one needs its own AA meeting: (“I’m Adam Brault and I haven’t held a grudge in 36 days.”)
People will let you down. Tremendously.
If you get close to someone, over a long enough timeline, you’ll find out they have the capacity to hurt you, no matter how greatly you once esteemed them—and the closer they are, the more it will hurt when they do. I’m not above hurting and I’m not above being hurt.
I’m a tragically idealistic person—but my idealism is rooted firmly in my frail imperfection. I want the world to be better and I want to be better.
When I experience a failed attempt to fix a relationship, everything in me wants to withdraw. I want to cancel every project (most especially the idealistic ones), quit every responsibility, and hermit the shit out of life.
What I’ve come to realize is the great temptation in a broken relationship is to place all of our hope on fixing it now—and assume that the only alternative is never. Then when that hope can’t be realized, our natural yearning for closure accepts the only answer as a grudge.
Patience, enduring hope, forgiveness, and love are the only real answers that won’t eat away at me—and the only chance at re-establishing broken trust.
I can’t fix it. The best I can do is live in the mess, express my sorrow over the hurt, hold on to hope, and always believe the best about people.
Tall order, but I’ve found no other prescription.
Note: I feel quite happy to say that this person reached out to me about a year later and we completely reconciled.
This was a huge weight off, but more importantly: it was confirmation of the truth of wisdom in this approach.