What I Learned from the Back Wall

I began to tell my friend Greg Berg, host of Radio Enso, that same old story about quitting my job–but then the story changed.

It’s not that I was holding back the previous hundred times. It’s not that this side of the story never existed.

The remarkable thing about story is that if one story is told ten thousand times, it can be told in ten thousand ways.

Perhaps that is obvious. But the writer in me–the author, the communicator, the guy who’s hosted hundreds of conversations these last five years and heard a different story each time–needs to remind you of how powerful that is.

A story is not made of mere facts and circumstance.

Story is the song you choose to sing.

It is the life you choose to presently live, over and over again.

Story is the practice, the action, the lifelong dedication to what you believe and how you strive to live by it.

You can tell your story in ways that will change you–and forever alter the course of your life.

All that’s required is a simple shift in a single phrase. Substitute one word for another, and suddenly the entire body of the story is a new one.

How we choose to tell our stories–those powerful little beasts of emotion that mix and mingle with hope and dreams and ideas–is a complex art that gives the gifts of empathy and connection to fellow human beings. Story satiates the simple need that we have for context, and relevance, and understanding. Story gives us the power within ourselves to frame our place in this world and among its people–and to reframe the circumstances, struggles and trials that might befall us.

Me, I’ve told the story of quitting my job five years ago a countless number of times.

Even years later, the story remains a strong part of the context of who I once was and what I felt called to do with my life. That story remains “the relevance,” the bridge, the emotional chain of understanding that I can cast out into a dark sea with desperate hope that it might catch upon the bow of another soul and draw that soul nearer to me, if only so I feel a bit less alone.

That story–choosing to become an unemployed 23-year-old college graduate in the middle of a 100-year recession–remains one that many seem to relate to. It’s a tale we’ve each lived in our own way.

That tale? A quietly-torturous existence that we live, but because “nothing is wrong but nothing is right” we do not feel like we’re truly alive.

Greg asked me, “Was there one moment when you realized that the life you were living needed to change?”

As he poses the question, I feel my eyes glance up and maneuver independent of thought as they search a catalog of memory. They stop to fix upon the back wall of the room. And there, in a flash, memory projects an image of myself, five years younger, clad in a black suit with a buzzed head and stubbly face.

The back wall.

The back wall is where I stood those days working as the right-hand-man of a campaigning political candidate. Those petty three months felt like three years. Every minute feels eternal when you’re drowning in depression and anxiety and a crisis of identity.

I was what was called a “body man.”  Body man is a catch-all political position for someone who works in extremely close proximity to the office-holding or campaigning politician. The curious title  of “body man” speaks to his proximity to the figure he works for: he is within arm’s reach at all times.

The body man is a soldier and a confidant. Though his is responsible for details that could derail an entire campaign, he does heavy-lifting and bitch work. Although his knowledge of his boss can become more intimate than his boss’ own soul-mate, the body man does the grunt work that no one else wants to do. He is a personal driver, an executive assistant, a task-runner, a coffee-maker, a schedule-coordinator. He carries papers and collects business cards. He is an advance-team within himself who ensures the boss knows where he’s going next and why. The body man ensures the boss is speaking to the right people at every event. He screens phone calls and sorts what’s important from what’s not.

The body man might even carry a firearm for protection purposes.

(We discussed it. I know how to shoot. I never made it long enough to see it happen. Besides, it was beyond my pay grade.)

I picked up my boss in my own car at 7:20 AM and drove him from event to event to between 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM, but on some nights we’d run toward 10:00 PM.

And when we arrived wherever we had to go–functions, fundraisers, meetings, offices, lunches, award ceremonies, radio interviews, local TV studios–it was there at the back wall where I stood and hovered.

It’s where I was overlooked, unnoticed, out of the spotlight, behind the crowd. I was anonymous there. Invisible.

The back wall was half where I wanted to be–I’d rather not have been there at all, but invisible was good enough–and half where I was relegated. The back wall represented what I was not. I was not a leader. All it took was a look to the front of the room to see him–and the officeholders, the campaigning politicians, the lifelong statesmen, the power-brokers and the industry-movers–to see what I was not.

Everyone faced them, after all.

They took his picture, they asked him the questions, they treated him like a king.

Everyone he meets tells him the same thing: that they are voting for him. He believes them. They believe it, too.

What most don’t realize is that in this chance moment they have the opportunity to tell someone who’s career rides on their opinions that they have got his back–it’s a moment when they get to feel like they are the ones with power; they feel like they really do matter  in front of a man who everyone faces, shakes hands with, listens to, praises.

But me, I was not a leader.

No. I was all of nothing.

I was a kid who didn’t know a thing. An over-educated idealist and dreamer without any laurels to rest upon. An ambitious punk who thought he knew enough of “something” to do more than just nothing .

I was, “And who is this?” if I was lucky, but more often than not I was not so much as looked at.

In that political world, I was but a pawn in someone else’s game–moved from place to place like a dispensable grunt. I was an independent mind subjugated to something less than total autonomy, something less than free choice, something less than self-reliance–which, if your soul is like mine, may well feel like a living death.

What I learned against that back wall was what it feels like to be treated like a second-class human being.

Perhaps that’s dramatic. But it’s what I was given.

The world of politics and public service gifted me many things, but the greatest gift that I had never spoken until Greg asked it was this feeling that I felt against the back wall.

…because I wasn’t alone there.

I wasn’t the only one who stood in the back of that room, against the wall, overlooked and dismissed and disregarded from the onset.

I wasn’t the only one who was invisible. A pawn, moved from place to place like a dispensable little soldier. I wasn’t the only one who was all of nothing: a sum of the things he did not own, and what accolades he hadn’t acquired, and what wealth he did not possess.

There was that school janitor who stood there too, by my side. And the banquet servers. Those few dish-clearers in buttoned down brown shirts who slunk between gowns and tuxedos at the university gala. There was the man who wondered aloud at an official “street naming” event–the street was named after something as pedantic and embarrassing as an infomercial knife product–why his father, who stormed Normandy, wasn’t the name on that street placard instead.

I wasn’t alone at that back wall. I was surrounded by souls. Souls, no different mine.

They too were the onlookers.

We were the overlooked.

We were the ones who the suits never thought to look at in the eye, let alone shake our hands or inquire for our names or where we were from, or ask what we were struggling with and how they could be of service to us.

Maybe it was my buzzed head and stubbly face–my head and facial hair being the only two little edges of defiance that I could control–that made me seem like I wasn’t just the suit that I was wearing there against that back wall.

Because that’s where I learned the most.

From speaking to that janitor who spent twenty years cleaning that Providence school. Helping those banquet servers maneuver around an obstacle course of chairs sat upon by fat, oblivious, self-entitled men so those minimum-wage servers wouldn’t spill plates of food upon “the important ones” only to end up fired and broke because some slob couldn’t wait another ten minutes to suck down his fucking linguine.

Upon that back wall, I changed.

For the first time in my life, I stood in the vantage point of the overlooked and the disregarded; walked in the shoes of the broken-back servers and social servants, the overworked and underpaid teachers and forgotten cogs in the wheel of society, if only for mere moments.

I felt in their faces their longing for something–for anything–when they looked to the front of that room. It was a plea for someone to stand for them.

All they saw were those who stood for themselves.

They were instead fed empty campaign promises and manicured smiles. They were given the line we’ve been given since childhood that no one can seem to truly explain: the remarkable incongruence of our democratic way of life wherein one man or one woman says that his or her personal success in election is, in itself!, how we save ourselves.

Against the back wall is when my slow, tempered slide of discontent–what began purely with my own displeasure, my own unhappiness, my own doubts and ongoing questions–swung into a feverish rallying cry on those souls who stood against that back wall with me.

It’s when I stopped smiling for the pictures that I was dragged into. Why, when a prominent national figure (who is now a Governor) visited our state and joked and jested with me as if I were a bubblegum-chewing kid in a baseball hat, I shot his quips down with an impolite thud.

I began at the back wall half-relegated and half because I was ashamed to be seen. Months later, the back wall was not the place I “didn’t want to be.”

It was exactly, precisely, where I wanted to be–and nowhere else.

The stage became a symbol of everything I wanted to stand against: the title of “leader” that we the people assign based upon image, power, wealth, followers and fame–hollow measures and lustful wantings that far too commonly lead someone to lose sight of one’s own humanity, relatability, vulnerability, truth, and every shred of what actually matters in this life.

The back of the room became everything that I wanted to be. A human first and anything else second. A source of connection to fellow souls. An uplifter. A human being who looked other human beings in the eye–a suit who actually saw them.

After September 11, 2001, I spent eight years attempting to find a career path that validated a natural calling that I felt to be a positive source of change and goodness; I wanted to help people. In the wake of loss and chaos, I wanted to be a leader in some way because I saw a world that appeared to so desperately need it.

But at the back wall, I realized that I no longer wanted to be the image of a “leader” if it meant working my way towards the front of the room and getting there for what title I had and what I owned and the numbers of votes I garnished.

I realized that I wanted to be a leader from the back wall, instead.

On behalf of those who stood there with me.

I saw that I could be their leader, given the chance. I could be their hope, if I listened well enough and cared hard enough and damn well earned it beyond the metric of paper ballots.

I could be their story–instead of the story of everything they were not.

Their connection and understanding–their context and relevance.

Because they were me.

At the back wall I decided that I wanted to become that underdog, and remain one forever. To own it in my own way. I wanted to be a leader without followers. I wanted to shed the suit and let my own words cloak me. I wanted my résumé to be this story that I tell you today, and not a list of accomplishments and accolades that might make anyone feel “less than” me.

I wanted to become a man of the people, but not “of the people” like we say in politics. Not “of the people” that’s come to mean we’re spineless populists who can’t seem to stand for anything if it doesn’t mean we stand against half the population with an ignorant, partisan, discriminating vigor. Politicians will always be that. They are meant to be that.

Standing at that back wall, I came to realize who I wanted to become–that “A man for the back of the room” was who I was meant to become. Always overlooked, always disregarded, always second-guessed from the start and dismissed by those in front.

And I fucking love it this way.

How ironic that something that should mean so much to me should never have been told before, these five years later, until a chance conversation with a friend like Greg prompted the story to almost tell itself.

Whoever you are and however uncertain you may be about your own story and life and purpose–this is a conversation I have with souls on an almost-daily basis–rest assured:

Your story is not a singular narrative. Your story, your reason to be, your mission statement… they comprise one all-encompassing, throbbing heartbeat of an entity that is continually calling to you.

 

It wishes to manifest through you, here and now, today. Moments and memories of the past will occasionally seek you out and remind you of what it’s all for.

The moments you live now and the memories that you make today are all devout testaments to where you’ve come from, to what you believe, and ultimately to the love you long to share, feel, and experience throughout your life’s journey–from front of the room, or from the back of it.

Wherever you feel called to stand, do it.

And if ever you need a helping hand, you will know where in that room to find me.

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P.S. – I’m honored today to be back on The Unmistakable Creative Podcast (formerly BlogCastFM) with my pal Srinivas Rao after a 2+ year hiatus. Listen to my interview here »

P.P.S – Do you want to lead “from the back wall” through the art of writing, like me? Join me and my good friend Sally Hope for a free live call next Tuesday, January 21 at 8PM Eastern called “From Blogger To Author: Debunking The Biggest Myths About Writing.” It’s totally free, and I’ll be answering all of your questions on writing, blogging, self-publishing, freelancing, habits and philosophy and much more. Register for the free call here »

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