That which is truly our own is often so close to us we don’t know it’s there. So it is often the stranger who sees our unique destiny and the path to true fulfilment that we cannot see for ourselves.
In our childhood imagination the stranger comes in many guises. They may appear as the bold knight on a great white stag, the ancient crone on the darkened forest path or the clownish fool who speaks truth to power in the king’s court.
The stranger came to me one evening in the form of an old man, bent and grey, who weaved towards where I sat playing a piano in a hotel lobby, a glass of red wine precariously perched between the thumb and the forefinger of his left hand. Once at the piano he slipped into the easy chair beside the instrument, sipped slowly from his wine glass and listened closely with his eyelids shut as I played.
I felt uneasy. I was looking forward to a few moments of quiet reflection following a very full day facilitating a leadership seminar. It was mid week and we had scheduled an open night for participants to enjoy one of the many fine restaurants in town. I had returned to the hotel early to prepare some materials for the next day.
When I checked into the hotel a few days ago and noticed the spinet piano in the hotel lobby I had looked forward to this opportunity to sit and play. I felt self-conscious about my own music so I usually played cover arrangements of popular songs when in public spaces. But it was so quiet that evening that I decided to weave in a little of my own music as well.
But at any moment now my unexpected visitor might open his eyes and ask me to perform one of his favorite tunes, something I mostly likely would not know how to play.
"What music was that?" he asked after I had finished playing.
"Oh, a little of Moon River," I replied.
"I recognized that," he said. "But something else you were playing before that brought me out here. What music was that?"
"Oh that was a little of my own music," I said.
There was a pause and then, looking up to where I sat on the piano bench, he asked me to play some more. "Not Moon River. Some of your own music, like you played before."
I played again and after fifteen minutes or so I brought the music to a conclusion and sat back on the piano bench.
"Your music is very beautiful," he said, "I don’t understand. If you can play this music, why are you playing Moon River?"
"But that’s the music people want to hear," I insisted.
"Not when they hear this!" he replied.
After a longer pause he asked, "Do you play regularly here in the hotel?"
"Oh no, no!" I said emphatically. I am a leadership educator. I am busy changing the world!"
He didn’t seem at all impressed with that.
Then he asked, "how many others do this kind of 'leadership work' you do?"
"Oh, probably twenty or thirty in the Toronto area where I come from." I said.
He sat in thought for a long time and I assumed that our conversation had come to an end. Then he set his wine glass down on the table, leaned towards me and with eyes clear and almost fiery asked, "who is going to play your music if you don't do it yourself?"
"But..! " I was about to try to explain but words failed me.
"This is your gift," he said. "Don't waste it."
Then he stood up and, put his hand on my shoulder to steady himself, picked up his glass and turning slowly, walked unsteadily back to the lounge down the hall.
"Who will play my music?" I asked myself over and over as I took in the full significance of the question he had just asked me.
The next morning I was presenting a session on leading with vision and purpose but it was all coming from a textbook, not from a conviction based on my own life experience.
Uneasy now, I left the piano and walked down the hall to the lounge hoping to find this old man and suggest how we might reframe the question in a way that I would not need to change my life. But no matter how long I searched, he was nowhere to be found.
"Isn’t it interesting how angels come to us in the form of drunks and children," a friend mused when I shared the story with him a few days later.
Perhaps that’s who the stranger had been. An angel disguised as an old man, bent and grey, in a small town hotel. The angel’s wish for us is to 'follow our bliss'. And therein lies the challenge. The root of the word bliss comes from the French blesseur which also means hurt, injury or wound of some kind.
In the months that followed I did turn to my own music and I started to compose and record this music as well. In so doing I set a new direction in my life for which the outcomes were uncertain and the path unclear. I realized that this stranger wasn’t interested in my career goals or life plan. He was bringing my attention to the beauty of what I was creating and helping me imagine a new and more expanded story of possibility for myself and others to enjoy.
And as my recordings reached a growing audience and a more public stage I began to experience a profound vulnerability, the sense that I had taken what was most intimate and personal and turned it inside out for all the public to see.
And perhaps that is why we resist the stranger. Their work is to speak from what the moment calls for. In so doing they not only set us on the path of personal transformation, they also reveal to us that it is in our vulnerability, including the willingness to open our hearts and be touched by life, that we find our true strength.