Wednesday, November 02, 2011

My Father Was Half Right

I'm sorry for not having posted here for a bit.  Life has been happening at a good clip, and it still is, but I didn't want to totally neglect this small portion of it.

One of the kindest things my father ever said was me was, "Once you get outside your family, nobody gives a damn about you - they only care about what you can do for them."  He meant this in the kindest possible way (really!) with the intent of bracing me for what I could expect in the Big Wide World.  And indeed, that advice was very helpful in adjusting my expectations, and I have always kept it in the back of my mind, especially as an independent consultant.  People might be cordial and even kind, but I'd better deliver the value if I'm going to be handing them a bill at the end of the visit.

But as I've grown older, I've come to see that my father was only half-right on that point.  It was helpful counsel so far as it went, but taken straight is is overly pessimistic, almost to the point of being cynical.  It may usually be true that strangers, particularly employers, will not invest more in you than they can get out of you, but that does not mean that others will never invest in you.  In my personal history, it has sometimes been people I barely knew who invested in me out of sheer charity.  A high school teacher and football coach, who saw potential in an introverted sophomore that nobody else had spotted.  A second class petty officer saddled with a boot who'd never even been underway, who nonetheless took the time to instruct him in character and manhood.  There were others, and though it isn't a long list, it is long enough to prove that sometimes people do give a damn about strangers, and go out of their way to help them thrive and grow.

One irony about my dad's dictum was that he'd had experiences that proved that it was not universal.  One was in Colorado, on his way west to California, when his car broke down on a lonely mountain road.  A stranger driving by stopped to help, then drove my dad 20 miles back to the last town to get the requisite part, drove him back to his broken-down car, waited while he installed the part, and then followed him until he was safely to the next town. (Furthermore, that man was black, which was a real shock to my father, who'd been raised in a racist Missouri home.)  Another irony was that he tried to raise all of us children to be the sort of people who extended Christian charity to strangers - in short, to be the sort of people who'd defy this principle.

I've tried to keep dad's proverb in mind, particularly in the business environment.  But I've also learned that it's "more like a guideline", something to keep in mind when out in the world, but not something to assume is always applicable everywhere.  True love, charity toward another - even strangers - does exist.  Furthermore, we should stive to be people who spread it.  Granted, it's hard to deal with everyone at a level of intimate love.  Courtesy is possible and desirable, and we should always be on the lookout to do good, but we may be called to invest deeply in the lives of a few others - who may be strangers.

Of course, there have been a few who have attained to expressing deep charity toward everyone they encounter.  We call them saints, and we just celebrated them yesterday.  Wouldn't it be great to be that kind of person?

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