Sunday, January 22, 2012

Among Mortals

I tried not to feel inferior as I sat beside a young, pretty, exotic, confident and presumably rich businesswoman.

Society tells us that the richer you are the finer and smarter you are. Bill Gates, they say, is the smartest man in America. Such is the common wisdom about Bill, to be sure, but "they"... don't always say things I agree with. Businesspeople are surely rich and well esteemed, so much so that in my Toastmasters (public speaking) manual we no longer have summaries: now we have "executive summaries." Yes, everyone knows that business class people are richer than non business class and I don't just mean they get more legroom on the aircraft.

Passenger jets may be used by ballerinas on tour... but no sooner does the excitement of a window seat wear off than they have to retire. Oh, how strenuous, how short, is a dancer's career! Once there was a fine prima ballerina, beloved by thousands, who retired. The fine lady took some schooling, then took an anonymous entry-level business job... and found that her income was now better than at the peak of her dancing! OK, maybe her example "does not compute," but society still says the finer people are the richer people.


I was sitting by this businesswoman, wondering whether I felt inferior or merely sad, while in a corporate boardroom. It was evening and we presidents of various toastmaster clubs were having an area level meeting. People join such clubs, and volunteer to be the president, partly for the social aspects. And socialize we did.

"Do you guys know of any business self-development books?" asked the young lady. As an avid reader I said to get Games Mother Never Taught You by Betty Harragan. I gave an example of a lesson from the book. The woman grimaced: "That one I've just learned, the hard way."

"Do you know how to write reports," she asked us "without feeling foolish or futile as you write?" As an avid writer I said to write out the goal of your report on a separate paper using a complete sentence. I do that for speeches. Then you may gain confidence by relating everything you write to your goal. My humble advice was the best we had to offer about reports. The chairman of our meeting, our area governor, wore a nice business suit and tie. He advised the young lady, as we chatted, to give little thought to her shortcomings and instead to build on her strengths. This advice was new to her. I chimed to support the governor's idea by noting that business guru Peter Drucker held strong views that a company should hire based on a person's strengths, on what she could use to contribute to the company.

In terms of cost-benefit, weaknesses are not worth spending time on.

Now, whence came our dread concern for fixing our shortcomings? We in that boardroom all had concerns. Maybe because we all figuratively had puritan ancestors. (The woman's literal ancestors were Asian.) In our culture the Chief Executive Officer started out in the mailroom, Benjamin Franklin kept a self-improvement chart and a tenderfoot became an eagle scout. Those are golden strands. But there's a darker strand woven into our culture. When and where did any little shortcoming become in our eyes a big monster to be slain? Maybe in the same place our nightmares start: in childhood.


As a boy I read in Reader's Digest about a rich family. The family is having a not-so-functional supper: as the kids are loudly talking a young teenage girl says quietly,"I broke a school record in swimming today." Father storms, "Swimming! How about...!" (how can you be so below average at A and B, and why aren't you average at C yet, and how dare you be so very above average at D if you can't even do A properly?) So the father storms, topics swirl around, and the word "swim" is never whispered again. Not until bedtime. Then, by God's grace, the mother suddenly remembers and goes to the girl's room to ask about her success. Such family stories are as old as the book of Genesis.

A son, east of Eden, was excellent at socializing and telling jokes and being generous and herding swine... but he thought he had to totally avoid his father and family. This was because he was below average at one itzy bitzy little thing: he was prodigal. When did fathers start saying that if you failed to meet just one condition, such as by being too prodigal, then you had failed to meet the condition for being "good enough" to be loved? Fathers never did. OK, maybe they briefly did, in the same way a little boy says, "...and I hate you!" Yes, the boy means it, but it passes. We adults know this. Children don't. If a girl becomes a woman while her father still occasionally storms then she will still wonder about him. This wondering won't pass; she won't ever feel secure.

Somehow, surely, these darker strands of society are connected, these dark beliefs about shortcomings and conditional love and richer being finer... I wish I understood but I guess I don't need to. It's enough to remember we are more alike than we are different. I am challenged because I dwell on stuff so much, my area governor is challenged by his use of a wheelchair and the businesswoman, well, surely she too has her story. I think all we can do is keep helping each other and striving for the good.

Sean Crawford,
East of Eden

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