Soft truths about hard people

2012-04-03 00:00

WE saw The Iron Lady over the weekend — Meryl Streep in a tour de force performance as Margaret Thatcher, well deserving of the Oscar and other accolades she received.

The film has an elderly Thatcher struggling with dementia; she remembers events from her past while hallucinations of her late husband, Denis, both intrude on and comfort her in her loneliness. It was an unexpected view, astonishing even. While Streep has received praise all round, the film itself has been panned and praised with equal passion.

If you are looking for a documentary or a biography, this is not the film for you. However, one writer commented in the Daily Telegraph online review: “I [have] an 82-year-old mum who lives on her own miles from my sisters and me. The film is delightful, it put tears in my eyes and made me resolve to telephone and see my mother more often before she is gone. In the end it is primarily a film about growing old and looking back at life and its meaning rather than a political commentary, but is in no way diminished by that.”

That got me thinking about the elderly Thatcher’s retort to her doctor, who had asked how she was feeling.

She said: “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and

ideas. Now, thoughts and ideas — that’s what interests me.”

She went on to say (and I

paraphrase): “Thoughts lead to actions, and actions become habits, and habits develop

character, and character defines who I am.”

There is a great deal of truth there but, like much of what is confidently declared by self-assured people in a loud, authoritarian tone, it needs to be unpacked and taken with caution. As it stands it rejects feelings altogether, as if emotions have no significant role to play in our lives. Yet Thatcher herself became who she was because of her huge self-belief, which is as much about emotion as it is about intellect. And politics

everywhere is more about connecting with the emotions of people who have the vote than it is about intellectual debate.

In the employment field,

managers who reject feelings as soft and of no consequence, are usually the ones whose (often unstable) emotions drive most of what they do: they feel angry and react accordingly (usually very loudly), they like an employee and so afford him or her special attention and benefits.

Feelings play a greater role in so-called hard-nosed business decisions than most of the players would admit. Businesspeople, who cold-heartedly declare that the bottom line is all that matters, will still find money to throw at a pet project. Why? Because they feel good about it; it feels right. The personalities involved, and the relationships developed, all play a significant role in decisions made at every level, whether we admit it (and sometimes even whether we are aware of it) or not.

Feelings are critical. What we have too often done is to allow feelings to dominate and determine our actions. For some it is an unconscious thing, as for the manager here, it is because we have denied our emotions, for others it has become a lethargic, soul-destroying way of life — “I don’t feel like it, so I won’t do it.” It is perhaps the latter that has given feelings a bad name.

We become aware of our feelings not to determine our actions but to make our actions more meaningful. The manager or parent who ignores his or her feelings but acts on them anyway is a menace. Awareness and acceptance of our feelings allows us to make more informed decisions about how we live, and how we respond to others, and to take responsibility for our actions, as did the person quoted here: “The film … put tears in my eyes and made me resolve to telephone and see my mother more often.”

The writer’s emotional response led to an informed decision to take responsible action.

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