My guest today is John Thurman. John is a business performance expert, and he’s currently serving as executive vice president and a board member of Insurance Office of America.
He’s also a coach with lifework leadership, Orlando, and they help business leaders grow as transformative leaders in the community as they integrate their faith and their work in the marketplace.
He does this all as part of what John calls His purpose, His mission, the Ministry of availability, we’re here to talk about an important challenge that I know many of us widowers have faced through the grieving process. And that is our leverage of masks. John Thurman, welcome.
Thanks, Tom. Hey, man, it’s great to see you here on screen. So often times, you know, we have the chance to see each other at the coffee shop. So it’s super to see you here on screen.
Awesome. And some of my best people and best guests are indeed from my local coffee shop here in Winter Park.
First, I want to make sure that we’ve got a clear definition, and we’ve got clarity around what the heck it is that we’re even talking about today. So John, what is a mask?
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, Tom. And really, I think succinctly, a Mask is anything that we might put on, that would keep us from being our authentic self. With the key word there is being Authentic.
Now, it’s important to note that anyone that may have a figurative mask on doesn’t suggest they’re an inauthentic person. I just simply says, as life comes out as hard, hitting us with challenges, people situations, losses, that cause us to have to put on a shield to basically just feel safe, and to feel protected.
So I think anything that we just put on in a figurative sense, that blocks the world from seeing who we really are.
I think, as men, as business people, and certainly those of us who are widowers going through the grieving process, putting on a mask is common.
I know, it’s something that I had to do right after the loss of my wife, Judy,
I had to get right back to business. I was running a company, and I was the founder of that company/ It really relied on my persona, my involvement, my engagement. And if I didn’t get right back in there, and put on my happy CEO and leader face, the company wasn’t going to be around and there were going to be 20 some odd people that were looking for new jobs. And I was responsible for not just my own family’s healing, but for the care and comfort and, you know, success. So essentially 20 other families for the 20 other beautiful people that worked for me.
So that stoic mask had to go on right away. As I’ve talked to other brothers, other widower brothers, John, a lot of us had to do this in one fashion or another. Why do you think folks who are grieving leverage masks?
First of all, I want to make sure that I don’t presume upon any one particular situation. But as I think about what I noted before, there’s an innate characteristic within us to want to stay safe,
And as I think about grief in particular, you know, it hits at the very heart and soul of who we are. And, when you think about it, to the degree that we’ve lost something that once captivated our hearts, of course we want to naturally protect ourselves against another loss of any kind, right?
Oftentimes we put up this wall of protection, that ultimately, is that figurative mask. It’s a way to protect ourselves from the potential pain of what might be around the corner, something we’ve previously experienced, and we want to shield ourselves from that.
I agree. The other mask John that I put on was one with family and friends. I wanted to appear strong, and put on this “stoic mask” that I chose to wear, and maybe that was my safe zone in being a CEO and a leader for so long. That was what made me feel safe.
But one of the things that it did was, in a lot of ways especially with my children, I think because I was so stoic, they were unaware a lot of times of just how much Dad was hurting inside and how I actually was grieving. Quite a bit.
But I kind of chose to put that very stoic mask on. The good news was, I kind of realized that, but it took way too long. And I think that’s a problem with masks. I think all of us want to feel safe. And so we put on a mask for a little while. But I think the bigger problem and you and I have talked about this, is when you keep the mask on for too long.
Well, a lot of things can happen there, and two or three things kind of come to mind.
One is, as you note right there, our hearts can atrophy over time. And, and we see that we cease to feel the love of others, who may be reaching out to us. We may be numb to the actual intent, or even the desire for it.
There’s a great quote, from Norman Cousins who took a quote that Albert Schweitzer had put out early on, and he added to it, but it says, “The tragedy of life is what dies inside of a man, while he’s still live”. Norman Cousins says, this is the loss of genuine feeling. So the mask can be on so often that numbness can keep us from feeling again.
It’s a situation where our individual worlds over time can get smaller and smaller and smaller. We begin to not live out the vitality of life as it’s meant to be lived.
I think the biggest effect is, when we have the mask on for too long, is that we begin to believe that the mask represents who we really are. With that we find ourselves living in this kind of this never ending identity crisis, because we’ve put forth the false self, when in reality, we’re not living inside of our true self.
I look at my own life, and while I haven’t experienced one of the losses like you have, the fact that my father, while he was still living, became basically not alive anymore, figuratively speaking. The tragedy of life that dies inside of a man. Unfortunately, he was a dead man walking,
I know that sounds really harsh to say, but the reality of it was, he got knocked down to the mat, as life dealt him a curveball. As a result, it caused me, in order to be safe from the person that he had become, I had to put on this false self, myself. I was no longer living my true self, if you will, because I needed to protect my heart.
You’ve got this persona and this mask that you’re portraying out there, to your friends, to your family, to associates to the world, and then you’ve got your real self. And there’s an incongruence between those two things. And I think that’s where depression occurs. That’s where sadness occurs. And I think until you’ve got that congruently back, that you really can’t find true joy and happiness in this world. If you’ve got a mask, and then you’ve got yourself, and you’re never living up to the expectations of the mask, and the mask isn’t revealing your true self. I think therein lies most of the strife that we experience.
One of the things I’ve realized now doing this “ministry of availability” for 23 years or so, which is to help folks navigate life out their front window and help them see around the corner. What I’ve learned, in particular with men, so many men spend their life’s energy on who they’re not and living in fear of being found out. And it’s like running in a race with no finish line. It’s exhausting.
So, synonymous, really, in a sense, when you wear the mask, it’s exhausting. Because there is no finish line to the false front. Because it’s not you, you’re not living out of your true self and your true identity.
I could remember John, when I had those masks on, front and center, what I would say all the time was: “I’m tired. I’m exhausted”.
Now granted, a lot of it was going through just years of the sickness and hospice being here at home and all of those things, but I think it was beyond that. I think it was internal, not external, because of that incongruity that you just mentioned.
It is exhausting to keep that mask on. And to keep up that facade. Like you said, you could short term I think, sometimes we need to, walk in that room and put that happy face on. Sometimes you need to walk in the room and put that strong face on. But I think over time, if you do it too long, I think you just become exhausted from it.
So we talked about having the mask on and some of the issues. As you were talking, John, one of my favorite song quotes is from the song Desperado by the Eagles, and it goes: “You’re losing all your highs and lows. Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes away?” I think there are many of us who’d love to get that feeling back, who’d love to not be so tired, who’d love to take the masks off? But they’ve been on so long and it can be difficult to do that. So how do you suggest brothers go about losing the mask?
One thing just to note, if you keep that mask on for too long, the challenge is that we can be so comfortable with it, we can kind of forget it’s there.
And I think one of the solutions: the idea of having a true friend, someone who will be real with you, someone who will speak life into you, kind of an accountability partner is huge to help you navigate your way through.
When I think about one of the simplest. expeditious ways to lose that mask, is inviting people into your story. The interesting phenomenon about human nature is that as you invite people into your story, almost irrespective of your story, they will see something of themselves in your story. And when that happens, you’ve made an emotional connection that transcends the mask level.
When you think about it, when you invite people in, it requires a measure of vulnerability. You have to be vulnerable in order to allow people in. And you ultimately find that there’s a real power in transparency. You begin to see, as you come out from behind the mask, that over time, we begin to see the way we’ve been designed to be. This is who we desire to be, This is who we longed to be.
So I really believe that when inviting people into your story, they see themselves. It will free you up to experience the power of the transparency and truth be told, can be used to be an agent of healing in the lives of other people.
John, I want to talk about ”story” a little bit, because the most amazing stories that we get sucked into is when there are superheroes involved. The best of those stories, what’s the key? The superhero is vulnerable, right? They have a weakness and they’re not super in every way.
And I think we try to go out there into the world like we are superheroes. And you don’t connect with a superhero, if they’re flawless. What we connect with are the flaws in those superheroes, the humanity of them.
We as men go out there trying to be superheroes all the time, when the better story actually, could be to let those vulnerabilities fly. You can of course come off as being too vulnerable at times, but I think showing some of that vulnerability will actually endear people to you.
I know that when I started to do it, when I started this ministry of Growth through Grief, my girls really didn’t see me reflecting grief very often prior. I was too stoic, yet when they saw what I was doing and read some of the stories, for the first time, I think they realized, “Wow, Dad was deep in this, and was really feeling things”. There was a vulnerability there that they hadn’t seen. They loved the strength that I was portraying, but they didn’t see that vulnerability. And so I was not presenting my true self, and was projecting an incomplete character.
I would contend that Authenticity is the most foreign language in the world, but one that people are desperate to speak, and to hear.
The best way to help someone be authentic is to be real yourself. So I think Tom, there’s a passage in, scripture Corinthians 12:9:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
Paul is talking about this thorn in the flesh that he has, and begs the Lord three times to take it away. And the Lord clearly says, I’m not going to, but My grace is sufficient for you, helping you find my strength in your weakness.
And for the longest time I read that passage and thought, I’m clinging to that. Why am I still struggling with some of this? And that’s when I realized that I’d read only through Corinthians 12:9 A and when I read 12:9 B further, the emphasis is more on Paul boasting all the more of his weakness so as to rest in His strength.
So the principle behind that is if you want to unleash the higher power, you have to embrace the weakness, and in this will reveal strength. And this means leading with transparency. You have to invite people in, because that’s what neutralizes the lie. That’s what makes the ground even again, right.
A lot of times we try to cover up the weaknesses and the hurts, as we ask for relief from it rather than embracing it.
One of the things that I love is Japanese Kintsugi, which is golden joinery. A long time ago, aJapanese warrior broke his favorite tea bowl, and sent it off to China to get it fixed. It came back with an unsightly repair, with staples, which he found completely unacceptable. So he had his craftsman join the broken pieces together, and they used gold and resin.
What came of this joinery was stronger and better. The best thing is that the repair created an object of absolute beauty, as it emphasized the breaks, and the cracks and the imperfections. It didn’t try to hide them with glue or staples.
If we’re able to embrace those unique issues that we have, embrace the unique challenges, and show off the cracks and the breaks and the imperfections, and not just show them off, but feature them in a way that shows much more beauty than what it was before.
I read a great quote years ago that you would never expect from the annals of the armed services. but it simply goes like this: “The irony of surrender is that it ends in victory, not defeat”.
So when we surrender ourselves to the vulnerabilities, to express our real needs and hurts and wants, that’s the point of our greatest strength. That’s where we find a victory. It’s not defeat.
The mask would tell you to stay behind and hide. But if you are able to come out from behind the mask you’re not going to be defeated. It’s victorious when you are able to live fully alive.
John this is easier said than done. You and I are talking here. And we’ve been vulnerable with each other many, many times over coffee.
There’s a lot of brothers out there that are not exactly eager to share. We’re not taught to share particularly with other men. Yet I think a lot of this healing has to occur with men to men interactions, a man to a mentor or man to a fellow brother. Talk about the importance of that kind of sharing.
So I think it’s absolutely essential.
We’re prone to listen to the lies that have been written on our heart: that we’re not good enough, that we don’t matter, that we’re unlovable, that we’re meant to live in isolation, that we’ll always be alone. we’ll never meet anyone new – those kinds of things.
So I say it this way, I think we all need a refrigerator friend. I had the blessing of having a refrigerator friend for 19 years. And he and I had spent over 7000 hours together. And this is a guy that will come to your house, doesn’t knock, walks in, goes to the refrigerator, gets food, doesn’t ask, sits down and says “Hey, man, how are you doing?”. And you go “I’m doing great, how about you?”.
It’s someone that you’re so comfortable with, this idea that it’s a place to be not well known, but known well. There’s no safer place to be than to be fully known. There’s no need to run. There’s no secrets. Instead we get to plumb the depths of our transparency. We get to simply rest and just simply be.
And the challenge is finding folks like that. But I will contend that as we are vulnerable. as we speak with a measure of authenticity, as we invite people in our story, that this will help us accelerate and move beyond the surface level conversations into more substantive things that matter. In particular things of the healing nature.
And I’ve heard you say Jon, “To whom do you go to become fully known?” I love that. I think that’s a challenging question that we all need to ask ourselves.
Unfortunately, I lost that person. He was my mentor, Dan Friedlander, and I lost him 10 years ago, before I lost my Dad, before I lost my bride Judy, before I lost a business partner Bryan, my brother Rob… there’s been a lot of loss since then.
And I go out to Boulder, where he lived. And I just came back from there, Jon. I do pilgrimages back there, to connect with at least his “ghost”. and his wife who’s still with us. And it helps me, because I still feel like his presence is there. And I feel like I’m known there. Does that make sense?
One of the things I did, and I didn’t have this right away when my wife passed, but I happened to be introduced to one widower, which then became another widower, which then became another and we have a little group. And it took us a while to get comfortable with each other. We would share some things. But as we grabbed coffee together, and we went out to a restaurant and ate a few times we’d talk a lot about the stories of our late wives and our challenges and we’d share a little bit. But this last meeting, our fifth, was all about sharing some of the deepest challenges that we faced through the process.
It took that long to feel comfortable and begin trusting each other, I think, because there’s brothers who just have that barrier here. Men weren’t taught to hug other men, you weren’t taught to talk to them. I don’t know how your Dad was. My Dad was an athlete, a great man. But he wasn’t exactly really good at sharing feelings.
Yeah, for sure. I think that’s why I talk about this idea of “plumbing the depths of transparency”, You are weaving the fabric of life together, as you plumb the depths, and you get stronger together. And that’s, that’s the key.
And I do think that we need that kind of support. I know, I didn’t have it. I had great friends who were looking out for me. But that intimate sharing where someone who’s gone through a similar experience, I do think that that’s really important to have through this, or a mentor who’s been with you long enough, and seen enough of you that you can go to as well as also important.
And if you don’t have it, what do you suggest, Jon? How do you go about getting that mentorship going? Or getting that friend to whom you can go to become fully known.
I would say that there is an interesting dynamic, because there’s as many men desiring the connection as you desire it. But someone has to take the initiative. Ultimately, I say lean in and engage.
Discover the revelation of God’s will each and every day by faithfully engaging the day. Sit down with a person that you see with an open seat and just say, Hey, can we visit? If you see someone reach out and reach into him? You never know.. You just never know.
When I look back at my refrigerator friend, and I think about what that intimacy of friendship brought to me, it was this circular pattern of a desire to be pursued, a desire to be understood, a desire to be fully known. And a desire to not be judged. Because you don’t judge me, you love me. And because you love me, you pursue me, and then you just understand me and you allow me to be fully known and that’s a beautiful picture of friendship.
But someone has to take the initiative. It’s just what is required. What I also found is, take the initiative to get together. And then, you’ve got to take that mask off first. A lot of times, you want to be fully known, and you want to fully know the other person as well, so you do have to be vulnerable. And that too can be difficult.
Jon, what’s the one thing when it comes to masks and what we talked about today …what’s the one thing you’d like to leave our widowers or growth warriors with today?
So here’s a statement to think about. It’s simply this: If you live life behind a mask, only the mask is getting love.
So many people, if not most people, are only knowing love at the mask level. And by extension, they only know how to give love at the mask level.
But God made us and intended us to be relational creatures, right? He designed us to be an authentic relationship with one another. He called on us to love others, but we can’t give away what we don’t have.
So as we can come out from behind the mask, as we free ourselves up to receive the love from others, in an authentic way, we are then given that opportunity to extend that love to others.
But it takes an action on our part, to remove the mask and allow ourselves to be loved, below the surface.
Totally love that. I think you summed it up so perfectly. If we’re not willing to take off thet mask, only the mask gets loved and it’s a shallow love. It doesn’t go deep. It doesn’t really touch the true us. And there is that incongruence as a result.
And the challenge is by extension, to the degree that you have generations of people that have only been loved at the surface, as they extend to others, the generations cascade. There becomes this generational impact of surface love.
And so, you can kind of plant the flag, and set the course, and be the guy to take the mask off and, you know, lean in.
We didn’t talk about this, but as we live in a very social network oriented world, it seems like masks are all that we put up there. The persona of ”living our best life” on Instagram, living our best life on Facebook, right.
So you have to work a little bit harder to take that off, or maybe don’t participate in those mask-oriented kind of fronts that are put up there. So you can be more authentic.
And some of it too, is to challenge yourself to engage in conversation. Rather than asking someone “Hey, how are you doing?” as the natural question people ask. Ask them, instead, “Hey, how are you really doing?” . You know, take a little bit of a risk there and see if you can get below the surface sooner, because it’s amazing how quickly you can get there. If you just get that mask off.
Love it. John, how can people in the growth from grief community find you online?
Well, the best way is likely to go to my LinkedIn page at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonthurman/
Connect with Jon as I’m sure he’d love to hear how you leveraged the advice that he gave today and if you were touched by what Jon had to say, which is pretty powerful stuff and tools,
Jon, I hope the listeners will take to heart: If you want to be loved, truly and deeply, take off the mask. iI you want to be healed. If you want to be happy and joyful again.
The mask was put on to protect you, to get you through the grieving process. But eventually it’s got to come off. And I know, from my personal standpoint, I didn’t really start my healing until I was able to take that mask off and be completely vulnerable
Thank you Jon!