Listening to Discomfort

Listening to Discomfort

Long ago, I was lucky enough to land the gem of all jobs, an editorialship at Sun Microsystems, handling the and properties. It was amazingly cool, and I felt like I’d fallen into the best of all possible worlds. Sun, at that time, was innovation-focused, and walking the halls there meant you could run into geniuses of every stripe; truly inspired individuals who were generating magical code. My job was to help them write about it. Truly swoonworthy.

My manager knew I was junior for the role, and assigned a mentor to me, a lovely woman who’d been an editor longer than I’d been alive. Mary Aline was one of those people who glowed slightly, from the sheer radiance of her personality. She was sweet, soft-spoken, and wickedly brilliant from behind her reserved British-style manners. I was absolutely entranced.

She and I met for tea on several occasions, and we would talk about editing, about the power of words spoken and written, about the transition from editing on paper to editing on screens, about etymology and about connotation, about intention and about focus. I feel like those few months basking in her presence elevated my skill more than anything else would or could have.

One day, sitting in my sunny kitchen in Santa Cruz, sipping tea and nibbling on cookies, the conversation lulled slightly while we let our minds soak in the ideas that had been flowing back and forth. She looked out the window into my grassy, overgrown backyard, and commented, “discomfort is a sign that something is wrong. Don’t ignore it.”

I let that settle for a moment, thinking it through from several angles.

“Do you mean,” I asked, “generally, or editorially?”

“Oh, everywhere,” she laughed. “When you read a sentence and something just doesn’t quite… you know, you get stuck on it… always stop and look at that. But for everything else too. Discomfort. It’s a message to be heeded.”

We finished our tea and our cookies, concluded our visit, and just a short while later, she was stepping off a curb, fell, and suffered a traumatic brain injury that ended her editorial career, and brought our visits to a halt. It felt like a light had gone out of my world, and I’ve never found another mentor quite as radiant as she was.

But that piece of advice that day? Has resonated down through the years in all kinds of ways. Our culture, generally, reveres logic over emotion, and elevates rational thought over gut reaction. But when the eminently sensible Mary said “it’s a message to be heeded,” that gave me the permission, if you will, to run with it.

Sometimes, it’s just a phrase that sounds wrong to my inner ear despite not being able to find anything specifically incorrect. Sometimes, it’s a tone of voice a client or a coworker uses that just lands oddly. Sometimes, it’s the feeling that I should take a different path to work, for no particular reason. In every situation, my first impulse is to power through with rational thought, but Mary’s voice in my ear grants me the grace to pause a moment, and listen to that other message, the one that encourages a second, slower, more thoughtful look.

So in her spirit, I encourage you all to remember that discomfort means something is wrong. I encourage you to develop your inner ear, that listens to those messages, in prose or in life, and handles them with grace and prudence.

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