The Passion of Compassion

So just a little prelude to this post.  This is an attempt at a little short story.  I hesitate to call it that, because in many ways it is a small bit that was inspired by the writing of one of my followers Hariod Brawn who definitely has an amazing skill at writing.  It is a response to his post called the Ambit of Ambition.  I was about to write a comment about it, and then decided maybe I could be a little more creative in my response and write my comment in the form of a similar story.  His excellent piece made me think about how we define ambition and success in our lives.  As a society these words often refer to economic gain or fame based on notoriety.  But by their definition they don’t need to be.  Can we not measure our success differently?  Can we have ambition for compassion or other values that bring goodness to the world?  With those questions I will say no more and allow you to contemplate an alternate universe. 🙂  Thank you for taking the time to read.


Terry was certain he didn’t deserve it, but even as he touched the glossy cover of Fortune 500 magazine he turned his gaze inward and gave a slight smile.  Gratitude washed over him and for a few moments he decided to let the ebbing tide take him away.  Perhaps it’s no crime to be proud of oneself, as long as you remember just how blessed you actually are.  His wife of 20 years now, sat beside him, a beaming smile that darkness could never hold dominion over and nods reassuringly.  With the timidity of child who approaches a horse, sugar cube in hand, he leafs through the pages until he sees his picture and the article written in his honor.  While he had always striven for more, to have made this magazine was more success than one could ask for.  Tears welled up a little as the 5-page article gave homage to a life so full, that accolades never seemed necessary.

He barely got past the first paragraph talking about how he had a food drive for the local food bank while he was in middle school, when he paused and remembered the very first experience that had motivated him to be the man he was today.  He was 6 years old and was walking back with his mother after a trip to the laundromat.  He remembered how it felt like an eternity that day doing laundry, especially since he become very hungry.  Mustering the full crankiness, a 6-year-old can offer when his stomach is growling, he insisted on the way home that she get him a soft pretzel from the stand near the laundromat, even though it was only a 10 minute walk him.  Mom had told him that she would make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when she got home, but the smell from the stand had been wafting in to the laundromat for some time.  While he generally loved the smell of clothes coming out the drier, his hunger mixed with the fact that somebody had spilled a whole lot of laundry detergent near them made him eager to follow that scent coming from the outdoors.  He remembered how palpable the smell was as if he was being led by the nose.  He knew his parents couldn’t treat him often, but he really wanted that pretzel.

He had easily defeated his mother with a series of quality pouts and big hugs and a look upwards at mommy with eyes that would make a puppy knew it had been out-cuted.  Then as he walked away and held the warm chewy pretzel in his hands he heard the shaking of a paper cup and the clinking of change. He looked up and saw a face that just caught him.  To this day he could bring to mind details about that face that he could not, on a whim, recall about others he had known better and for longer.  There was the bushy beard.  Grey had taken over the area of the chin and seemed to extend outwards in ripples of diminishing intensity to the rest of the hairy fac.  His skin was the color of milk chocolate, but had the tough but yielding look of old leather that made him think of his mother’s handbag.  He looked at other people with a smile and wishing people a pleasant day.  There was a sincerity that he had not seen in many others save for his own parents.  Terry stopped in his tracks and watched the man.  Forced to stop too, his mother, after already losing one battle, asked him what was wrong.  Her voice had the impatience that only a mother, carrying a full laundry bag and still many chores left in the day, deserves.  He had wanted to know what that man was doing and why was he standing there.  His mother explained that he was homeless and was asking for money from other people so he could buy food and beverage as he was likely thirsty and hungry.  It was spring, but the day was dreary and cool, and the man was wearing a lot of clothes, but most of them fraying and with holes or rips here or there.  Even on his parents satisfactory but tight budget he knew clothes would normally be replaced before such a state of disrepair.  He remembered the man suddenly looked at him with a wide smile and he looked back into those eyes.  There was a brightness to them that just made your day better to have them look at you, and all around his eyes were countless lines from years of hard living.  He looked older than any man he had ever seen at the time, even though he suspected that this man wasn’t as old as his Grandpa Greg or Grandpa Paul.  And in some ways those lines framing the eyes, made those bright eyes all the sadder, because Terry couldn’t understand how the world could be so cruel in the face of kindness.  As the warmth of the pretzel radiated outward from his hand, he could suddenly feel his hunger fade.

He held out his hand and said “Hi, my name is Terry, would you like this pretzel?”

His mom stood with jaw slowly giving way to gravity.

The man introduced himself, and told Terry his name was Jim and thanked him heartily for his gift as he was quite hungry.  Terry gave him a solid 6-year-old handshake, Jim’s fingertips cold as ice, while the other hands exchanged the pretzel.  Jim had turned to his mother and said “You have a fine boy there.”

His mom simply said “Thank you.  Yes I do.”  A confirmation of something she needed no other person to tell her was true, though you could still tell she was glad to hear it. Terry felt much more warmth now than the hot pretzel in his hand provided, and the joy at making that man happy was a feeling he never felt before.  It’s like he realized that not all joy was the same, and that there is a joy out there that is more fulfilling than unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  When he got home he had a wonderful peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the biggest glass of chocolate milk his mother had ever given him.

As Terry continued to read the article about him, it recounted many of the sources for his nomination.  It was hard to believe that 500 people had written personal testimonies to his kindness, his generosity, his friendship, and his compassion.  He joked to himself that he had it is easy.  When you are good with your hands, it’s much easier to lend one.  It was his best friends and business partners who had done the legwork to find all these people to write letters.  He felt an extreme sense of gratitude for having such friends.  It was around games of Dungeons & Dragons that they came up with the idea to start a carpentry business.  Which then grew into a business that flipped houses.  After the first year they had enough money to hire a few employees, and this allowed his friend Jonathan to do less carpentry and work more on the business end of things.  According to the article his employees had put together a letter of testimony as well.  As the company took a little less time, he started to do pro bono work with Habitat for Humanity, and for people in his neighborhood.  When he met his wife at age 32, his company had grown to where he had 10 full time workers and this allowed Terry to pull back a little so he could start a family.  He wished his daughter could have been here right now to share this moment with him, but she was away at college for architecture.  She shared his passion for building and had even a keener eye for design and making things look beautiful. Apparently she had also written a letter talking about what an attentive and hardworking father he was.

The article couldn’t name everybody, but there was a letter from a former science teacher who was nearly fired for being a gay.  A plea perhaps he was only able to win at a schoolboard meeting because of the goodwill his company had in this small and fairly conservative town.   There was testimony from the director of the local Vo-Tech where he taught classes, and took many of the students on to gain experience helping him with projects.  Some of those students also wrote letters of support.

After a while it had become too much for him to read anymore, and too indulgent to wonder who all might have taken the time and effort to support him.  Maybe he was too humble, but he also knew that none of his success was his alone.  Where would he be without the support and love of his parents?  It was their kind and generous nature that drove his own ambitions.  How could he have had the successful business he had without the loyalty and trustworthiness of his friends?  Ones that shared a similar vision for life, and whose enthusiasm and work ethic were matched by extreme talent for business and carpentry.  And all these people he had helped to over the year had come at the expense of time he couldn’t spend with others.  His wife and daughter had been so patient and understanding to know what drove him, and while they had never once expressed any wish to have him around more, he knew that at times they must have missed him.  Any one of the 500 people, he was sure, gave as much to him as he did to them. He turned to his wife and said “I must get a list of the people who wrote in, so I can write them back and thank them.”

She looked at him with eyes that knew him so well and just laughed.  “All in good time my darling.  Tonight you are resting on your laurels and I have made reservations.  Now good put on something nice.  You get an evening that’s just about you.”

Resigned, he got up and walked towards his room and tried to push his uneasiness to the back of his mind.  He stopped and started to turn sure he would have a good argument in all this, but his wife had followed him, expecting such ridiculous tactics and said “Go on!” and gave him a playful push on the back into their room.

He was resolute that he’d pay for dinner.

Plan B

Don’t worry this one won’t be about abortion.  I was listening to an excellent podcast called The Hidden Brain recently and the subject was backup plans (episode 8).  It is worth listening to, but I’ll save you some time and summarize.  Basically the program discussed research that showed that people who have back up plans tend to not be as successful in their primary plan or “plan A”.  I have written blogs posts in the past that look at the value of taking risk versus staying safe, and so this subject caught my brain’s attention.  It seems to me that developing a backup plan is something that runs along the lines of playing it safe.  Yet by playing safe we might end up more likely not getting what we really want in life.  So what’s the right answer?  Is there a right answer?

First I began to wonder, why do we do we develop a primary goal to begin with?  The primary goal represents our own hopes and dreams and in theory represents what we really want out of life.  A primary goal should also lead us to a feeling of security while also maximizing our happiness.  At least that’s what we think.  It makes sense that without a backup plan our only choice would to be put ourselves entirely into making this goal work, persevere and never give up.  Having a plan B might make it difficult when things get hard.  With any goal that is hard to reach there are setbacks, frustrations, moments of doubt.  There is absolute value in being able to push through those times to reach one’s goal.

If our plan A is what will make us the happiest and the safest, why do we then come up with a plan B?  I often council my students to have backup plans when applying for graduate school, like picking a few schools with perhaps lower standards so that if they don’t get in to their top choices they will still have a graduate program to get into.  There is a lot about having a backup plan that seems prudent, and this, to me, is simply because we can’t know the future.  We don’t know all the variables.  A student with a 4.0 GPA may still not get into the graduate school of their choice, because it is unknown how many positions they will have open, whether they might opt for a student they know better because he/she came from their program, whether there aren’t other extracurricular experiences that might make one candidate more desirable than another than just GPA, or perhaps a student’s interests simply don’t match up with a professor who has a graduate student position available.  Now if a student could afford to put their life on hold, and didn’t have to worry about money, it might be a worthwhile tactic to keep applying to the same school you want each year until you get in.  The higher the risk of a primary goal, the more perseverance will likely pay off provided you actually have the skill.  The reality is that seldom do we have the ability to always stick with something long enough when we are in need of resources to be able to survive.  In addition to that an inability to understand all the variables that can lead us to success, we may also overestimate our own ability.  As a professor I have certainly come across many of these students also.  Having a backup plan is crucial when a primary plan is even less probably in achieving because the person has overestimated their own ability.  Of course it could also be that my ability to estimate somebody else’s ability may be incorrect as well.  Either way, I think there is an equal amount of positive arguments that could be made for having a backup plan.

I tried to think about whether I am person who makes backup plans or not.  I think that, in general I do not, although I would say part of the reason for that is that I am not sure I have had very specific primary goals.  I wanted to be a meteorologist and become a professor.  I guess I added some specificity to that over time, but I never really said, I have to live in a big city, or in a particular area, I have always tried to be realistic beforehand in what the uncertainties are, and so even though I never had a backup plan, I never set my sights particularly high.  Of course this one possible solution to living life by only having a plan A, and that is to make sure plan A isn’t really that hard to achieve.  This could also be seen to be a questionable strategy as having lowered expectations can also have its pitfalls and is something I would like to follow this post discussing in greater detail.
One study that was discussed in the podcast was one that found that students whose parents paid for their tuition did on average worse than students whose money came from other sources such as student loans or their own pockets.  This study concluded that the reason was simply that students whose parents paid for tuition weren’t as driven because they had nothing to lose, and the security of their parents in case school didn’t work out.  As a college professor I have certainly seen this ring through.  While there are some students who work so much to put themselves through school and thus as a result end up doing poorly because they have too little time to study, in general the students who perform better are ones who either pay for tuition themselves or who take loans out and know they will have to pay it back.  However I was one of those students whose parents paid my tuition.  My family was not wealthy and while the cost of tuition in Canada compared to the U.S. was less and I lived at home, my parents had put a little money away each month since my birth and that came to enough to put me through 4 years of college.  Unlike the results of the study,  I did fairly well at school, I felt the exact opposite of a lackadaisical attitude precisely because my parents were putting my through college.  It was not my money I was using.  I don’t really want to waste my own money either, but in the end it’s my money and I can live with it if I end up wasting some, but to waste somebody else’s hard earned money that they put away and did without many of the creature comforts themselves to give me brighter future…well this increased my sense of responsibility to do well in school.  I suppose I did have the security of staying at home until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I really had no backup plan but being a meteorologist and then eventually becoming a professor.  Regardless it doesn’t seem like in all cases having a safety net is necessarily counter to achieving what we want in life.  When I look at my own life, I know my parents taught me the value of money, even if it wasn’t my own, and more importantly I loved and respected them and would never want to disappoint them by doing poorly in school and throwing away their money. Maybe it’s because I knew that they didn’t have much money to spare that made me respect the fact that they were paying my tuition more.

I am not sure I can conclude anything concrete from all this as I am still in the exploration phase of this idea, but it seems to me that in the end maybe whether we have just a plan A, or both a plan A and plan B isn’t the most important thing.  Maybe what matters most are the values we are raised with.  One can still achieve a plan A, even with a plan B provided we recognize that plan A simply doesn’t get achieved without putting our full effort forward.  Maybe our default to a plan B is simply because we really didn’t want plan A enough.  I know plenty of students whose plan A was given to them by their parents and has very little to do with their own plans for themselves.

Are you the type of person who makes a plan B or do you usually just make a plan A?   I am interested in learning how your plans have worked out, so please feel free to leave a comment.