On the road searching for a definition

“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
David Foster Wallace, 2005, Commencement Address to graduates of Kenyon College, Published in This is Water

NO Chairs

We missed a chair…

In late July 2007, I spent one week in New Orleans repainting schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina’s landfall nearly two years earlier. My plane touched down in the Big Easy late on a Sunday morning and after dropping my bags in the cockroach-infested hostel bedroom I would share with twelve others that week, I set off to explore New Orleans.

I bought a tin of Skoal mint snuff, carried a copy of Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One, a blue pen, and pale skin roasting in the suffocating air I collided with on each step. Drops of sweat slid down my frying forehead; the pinch of fiberglass and nicotine jammed into my lower lip seeped into my bloodstream and my head buzzed. I needed relief and found it in the shade of a secluded bar patio near the Garden District and an ice-cold Abita Purple Haze beer.

In one gulp, I sipped away a third of my beer and settled comfortably into my chair. I flipped my book open to the inside of the back cover where I scribbled the following phrase: What Ideas Define Me?

I left the bar 45 minutes later with 32 ounces of beer swishing in my stomach and the after effects of another dash of Skoal purring inside my head. The last blank page of The Power of One remained blank, though. I knew so little about myself right then that I couldn’t even lie to fill the empty space.

Pathetic.

Over 2,000 days (and nearly as many futile attempts to answer that question later), I read the above David Foster Wallace quote before work. An hour later on my drive into the office, the words that captured the answer I had sought for so long flashed into my brain.

Although the concepts are neither complicated nor extraordinary, the path to understand their simplicity was arduous and rife with speed bumps at irregular yet consistent intervals.

What amazes me the most as I read my reflections on these three ideas is how in the world it took me so long to frame in words a few thoughts that are so modest. Better late than never, I suppose.

1. People matter
A welcome sign just outside of my hometown of Fremont, Ohio, reads, “Fremont – Where People Come First.” While growing up in this Water Towercornfield-surrounded town, I mocked the banality of the message. Seriously, “where people come first?” Now, though, I understand its brilliance. Relationships matter and interactions count. Honesty, expression, and the mutual vulnerability of a conversation between two friends can change the course of a day, which can better a lifetime.

In his speech, David Foster Wallace remarked that freedom comes from “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” Freedom can be found in how we treat the people we surround ourselves with and how we value our dealings friends and strangers alike.

The reason that people must come first is that people matter most.

2. Inspiration originates from everywhere
In a way, people are like cars. We come in different makes and models, colors, shapes, and sizes. Some are battle-hardened veterans weathered by the scars of the daily grind, while others are young stallions racing through every stop because all of life is accessible and every dream only the slam of a gas pedal away.

Every car has a history. Where has it been and where is it going? Likewise, every person has their story to share. It takes a varying mix of patience, interest, perspective, compassion, and empathy to want to hear it. Sometimes by listening and silencing our own biases and opinions, it’s possible to discover unexpected things about people we’ve either known forever or just met.

This weekend I met a 62-year man who graduated from Ohio University over 30 years ago. He mentioned to me that he loved horses for all his life and that he recently finished a college course on Equinology. “Oldest one in the class by decades, but I’ve never felt younger,” he said. “Always trying to learn keeps me young.”

Inspiration—to learn something new, to explore a lifelong passion, to write more pages even if no outside eyes will ever read them, to hold an honest conversation with a parent or a friend—can come from any direction if we’re willing to accept it.

3. Giving is better than receiving
I met a brilliant man two weeks ago at a discussion group for start-up businesses who has an enterprise launching now. From a handful of his comments during the group conversation, I noticed the skillfulness with which he connected seemingly disparate pieces of information to understand to bridge missing gaps in the various businesses discussed.

After the group dialogue finished, we spoke for a few minutes and he shared an interesting perspective on cultivating professional relationships. To paraphrase, he said that rather than approach people for what they can offer him, he tries to find ways to offer them something helpful. This approach, he said, has led to his building better relationships almost without fail.

I sent him a short thank-you email for his time and advice alter that evening. In his response note, he asked for a summary of my current business project—maybe he knew someone who could help, he said.

Right now I don’t have much that I can offer in return for his generosity. But if (or when) I provide him with something helpful in the future I will do so unconditionally. Planting seeds of kindness and giving cultivate more kindness and giving.

Now, I should mention here that it’s impossible to give all the time. Doing so is a recipe for playing a losing game with exhaustion. Knowing how and when to say no is important.

But so is keeping a mindset that focuses on giving because it’s my belief that giving—of time, resources, energy, money, a listening ear—trumps receiving.

***
I long ago lost the copy of The Power of One that I carried through with me through the streets of New Orleans. If I still owned it, though, I would finally have the answers to the question I wrote on its back cover:

  1. People matter
  2. Inspiration comes from everyone, everywhere
  3. Giving beats getting

Simple thoughts that took me five years to put into words.

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