Susan Greenwood gets life coaching from Martha Beck
Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
PAGE 6
Ordinary Person 3
Susan Greenwood, 56, from Silver Spring, Maryland
Susan Greenwood's superpower was evident to me within minutes of calling her at home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her daughter had described Susan, 56, as "a spunky lady—really smart, optimistic, powerful" but drowning in the demands of overly dependent relatives and a work situation that had become problematic. So I expected Susan to sound frazzled, unhappy. Instead, she was so calm that my breathing relaxed at the sound of her voice.

So I knew that Susan's superhero was a Soother. Susan knew it too. She said so as we discussed the problem that had thrown her career off track. "It's upsetting," Susan said, "and I'm so disappointed. I've always been able to solve differences peacefully. It's kind of, you know, my thing."

As I got to know Susan better and heard more of her life story, I agreed emphatically that calming troubled waters was, indeed, her thing. A lawyer, she'd brought peace to warlike situations all her life, whether dealing with family conflicts or the adversarial legal system. As an African-American, she'd also found herself in countless situations where racial conflict seemed inevitable. Always, she'd handled herself with such grace that the fight went out of everyone, and harmony ruled.

"Once, when I was expecting my daughter, I met a white woman who was dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. I'm fair-skinned, and she obviously didn't know my ethnic background, because she used the n-word. I told her very politely that she was lucky to be talking to me, and not another person of color, or she might've run into a buzz saw."

That was Susan, communicating kindly, clearly, and drolly about something that would have made anyone else's blood boil. And yet she still felt stuck. Her distorted lenses were similar to Jane's, minimizing an awesome superself. Her glasses, however, were like backward binoculars: She saw things accurately but thought they were much smaller than they actually were.

I don't remember exactly what caused Susan to take off her metaphorical eyeglasses; I was so relaxed I'd stopped taking notes. I recall her saying, "My whole life, my ability to ease people past racial conflict has felt almost like a calling." Suddenly, I experienced a strange sense of déjà vu. I could hear Susan's rich, warm voice coming not only through the phone but through microphones, televisions, radios. It was like remembering dozens of inspiring speeches I'd already heard.

"Susan," I said, "say more about that. Say a lot more."

As she did, her prim normal-persona glasses, with their shrinking effect, slipped off, and her superhero self began stretching its powerful limbs. Susan's problems with work or relatives faded from our conversation—these were flyspeck issues compared with the Super Susan's future adventures. Instead, we explored her lifelong suspicion—no, make that knowledge—that she was meant to be a participant in the healing of what she called "America's great birth defect," the legacy of racism. She'd known this for a while, had imagined becoming a social activist, a speaker, a changer of lives and groups. But she'd been imagining it as a small thing, when her heart knew it was meant to be large.

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