Didn’t your mother warn you about ….
Didn’t your mother warn you about the dangers of pulling at loose threads?
Back in the early 90’s, Fujitsu America’s new Cellular division was the sparkly gem of their North American ventures. With the cell phone industry in its infancy, they were poised to be key players, locking down an exclusive contract to produce high-end cell phones for every new Porsche automobile and becoming the preferred brand of many cell phone retailers.
Through what some would call “providence,” some would call “coincidence,” and some would call “persistence,” I was able to leverage existing relationships and wrestle their marketing contract away from one of Dallas’ premier advertising agencies. My little company exploded onto the scene and grew exponentially (at least for the first four years).
In the mid-1990’s, a hillbilly sex-addict from Little Rock, Arkansas, set in motion a vendetta against the Japanese company for their failure to support his political aspirations. Using the current tax laws, and favorable media coverage, he set out to shut down the cell phone division of this Asian trespasser – never mind the fact that they employed 15,000 hard working Americans – and he succeeded. Fortunately, the telecom environment was exceedingly dynamic in those days and everyone simply moved to greener pastures right here in town. My company actually ended up benefitting in the long run but that didn’t keep it from feeling like the Earth was slipping out from beneath me at the time.
In order to relieve stress and since I didn’t have an abundance of demands on my time, I used to spend a couple hours every afternoon at the local President’s Health Club. I wasn’t there to preen or check out women or make friends. I was just there to burn off anger. But at the end of the day, I’m an observer of people and I cannot go anywhere without cataloging the crowd around me. I love to spot the similarities in people’s actions and try to understand why they do what they do. I’ve even been known to strike up conversations with complete strangers in an effort to develop a more complete picture.
Like every gym, Presidents had its share of cliches and in particular, it had that one gym asshole. You know the one I’m talking about – the guy with over-toned muscles and a tanning booth complexion, who struts around in baggy shorts and a wife-beater t-shirt with the arm pits stretched out almost down to his waste. He actually seems not to work out much but to just prance around from machine to machine, chatting up the women or talking loudly on his cell phone about last night’s party. Every time I went to this gym, no matter what time of day, this guy was there and he was always putting on the same act. I might have even made a snide comment to him except, well, he was in really good shape and I wasn’t. I did the next best thing. I quit going to that gym.
Now, fast-forward three years. The great cell phone crisis abated, we developed new clients, the company continued to grow, I got fatter, and my family decided to visit a brand new church that was opening near our home for Easter services. When we walked in, I was quite relieved to see several families that I already knew and the atmosphere was extremely relaxed. I cannot for the life of me remember what the sermon was about but halfway through, they showed a video about the pianist. She was a young woman who had been married to a man her age for five years and during that entire time, her husband had been dying from AIDS, a battle he had recently lost. He had been fighting the disease with all his strength and every resource, including spending thirty hours a week at the gym working out to stay in perfect shape. Yeah, you guessed it. When they showed his photo, I’m still not sure if I swore out loud or not.
In his book, “Talking to Strangers,” Malcom Gladwell documents the dangers of misreading what strangers are thinking, not just what they’re thinking about us but also about themselves. He points out the near impossibility of really knowing what a stranger is going through or what events in their life have brought them to the point of the very discussion they’re having with us. How then, can we have a meaningful discussion – one which accurately communicates the same thing to both parties? I don’t know about you but I have a hard enough time just having discussions with my wife, to whom I’ve been married for forty-three years, without old baggage threatening to pervert the narrative.
The real question is, “Where do we begin, not just with strangers, but with each other, to earn the right to ask the hard questions in order that we might show genuine compassion?” Because compassion, if it costs us nothing, is just a Fred Rogers tune about a beautiful day in the neighborhood. If you figure out the answer to this one, let me know. But until you do, I recommend you not pull on that stray thread.
“Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.”
― Tim Keller
A meeting of great minds who think alike