Just My Luck – Chapter 13-1
Somewhere between Mother Theresa and Donald Trump is a place where I’d like to live the rest of my life. Like yours, my definition of a life worth living is strictly my own. It is driven by my values – the purposes and priorities that resonate with my self/soul. A life worth living is a goal, an ideal, a standard that measures my progress, self-disciplines my actions, and helps me make choices – all to improve my self, to feed my soul.
Between the extremes of the self-sacrificial and the self-serving, my natural inclinations are far short of the saintliness of Theresa but are definitely considerably farther from the malignant narcissism of Trump.
After each of my potentially life-ending experiences, I have revisited my values to evaluate their relevance and to amend them if needed. Absent strong and defining principles, I would be worthless to myself and others. I don’t want to die in that state.
I already wrote in my previous chapter about how much I’ve learned to value Commitment, so I’ll not repeat that here.
Pretty early in my life, I was taught in church that our purpose as people was to serve God. Okay, got it. That’s good. One thing though, how do I go about serving God? What in the world does God need that I can do for Him or get for Him? (Remember, this was in the 1950’s before we realized that God might be either gender or neither one.) Really, I want to help, I want to serve, but since God is the master of everything, what’s left for me to do?
Then it hit me, an epiphany, a good way to serve God would be by serving Her/His best creation in my neighborhood, my fellow man (in the gender inclusive sense). That would satisfy the mission, I was sure. And I’m still sure of that today.
So, the underlying purpose of my values has long been to help others.
I think it’s a fine value. It pleases me and I think it pleases God. It’s stood the test of time at the head of my list . Coincidentally (or not) Doris also independently realized that her reason for being on the planet is to help people. Frankly, she’s a lot better at it than I am, and always has been. But I’ve learned quite a good deal from her. You’ll see.
While trying to be helpful, I also try to be mindful of the corollary, do no harm. I’ve found that tenet is often hard to follow unless I amend it to do no harm on purpose. I always need to keep an eye out for those pesky unintended consequences.
My efforts at helping others are sincere; they’re not an obligation, but a choice I made that gives me great rewards. Doris is more active in accomplishing this mission we share, but while she may see an opportunity to be helpful more readily than I, we often work together to pursue it. I find some on my own as well, a trend that has increased with age.
Helping can take a staggering number of forms: donating money to charities, spending time with someone who is lonely or bereaved, change a flat tire, running errands for a shut-in, making a child laugh, returning a found object to whoever lost it (wallet perhaps), cheering for someone’s accomplishment, encouraging someone who is not self-confident, giving time and attention to someone else’s needs or problems, the list is huge. And one doesn’t necessarily have to go out of his/her way to do it. Create something good when you do anything. Complimenting a co-worker on a job well done costs you nothing but rewards the recipient handsomely. Telling an acquaintance he or she looks good in that outfit, or looks to have lost some weight, or is admired, or whatever.
In my undergraduate training to be an English Teacher, I was taught the basic psychological truth that positive feedback is a much stronger learning motivation than is negative feedback. Building someone up yields greater returns than tearing them down. A teacher, a boss, a parent, a priest, anyone in a leadership position can help make the lives of their students, employees, children, congregation members, constituents better simply by using positive rather than negative motivation.
Anyone can build others up. My sage mentor Vladimir one day told me, “When I retire, I want to become a waiter.”
“A waiter? Really?” I replied. “Now why would you want to become a waiter ?
I will never forget his answer.
“Because a waiter always has the opportunity to make someone’s day better.”
Knowing him, working for him, working with him, made my life considerably better. He too valued doing good for others and I was a beneficiary of his help. He encouraged me to believe in my talents and look for opportunities to learn. He predicted that I could go far, and inspired me simply by telling me so. He was my boss, but he offered me his friendship. Never since have I known such a human being.
The opposite is also true. The worst way to motivate someone is in the negative.
The guy who initially introduced me to Vlad by arranging my job interview, later told me that my mentor was doing me no favors in over-complimenting my work. He warned that when I eventually worked for someone else, I would find it hard to find a cheer leader to replace him. In short, I was being spoiled by Vladimir and one day I would have a rude awakening when he was no longer there to stand between me and the sharks in the tank.
Put another way his message was, “don’t get a swelled head from his flattery, you’re not that good.”
He was a little right and he was a lot wrong.
Vlad died in 1990 and I did indeed miss his encouragement. As I mourned his loss (my loss), I was his successor in the office. I was more than a little daunted by the size of the shoes I was to fill, but he prepared me well. He helped me believe in myself and recognize my strengths and weaknesses. Armed with this, I took those strengths and minimized those weaknesses further than I ever thought possible.
I am ever thankful that he was my mentor and I miss him still.
I like smiling. I especially like smiling at strangers and the smiles that precede a good laugh with a friend. A warm smile is a cost efficient way to brighten a day.
Occasionally, it can be difficult in some venues, but generally making eye contact, smiling and nodding the head once in silent greeting brings a smile in return. It’s a small, momentary connection between two people who may have never seen one another before and are unlikely to see each other again, but it is not meaningless. If I am a tenth-of-a-degree warmer for the experience and so is the other person, it’s a fine use of the time and energy it takes to smile.
I don’t smile at everyone I see, but when the thought hits me I smile readily. Just the act of smiling can improve your day. Smiling works on you like the salt, pepper, thyme, or other favorite spices work on your food. Smiling makes your time more interesting, enjoyable, and flavorful. The fact that a smile has no calories or carcinogens is a fine bonus.
When I smile at physically “attractive” women, I wonder if they assume I am coming on to them. Truthfully, sometimes I wonder if I am, but I’m always satisfied and happy to be one of two smiles passing.
The best fun is smiling sincerely at people who least expect it, like Vladimir the waiter would have.
I like to think that I am an indiscriminant smiler.
Competition vs. Congeniality
When I returned from my hermit-hiding place in Maine to the suburb of New York City where I spent most of my life, I brought with me a new and fresh perspective from which to view my home environment. With the exception of my first year of college at Virginia Tech, Connecticut had been my home state for my entire life before we moved to Maine. I really needed that change of venue to experience a different worldview. I was a different self when we returned.
Both places have their attractions and their “unattractions” (my newly invented word), but I quickly realized that many of the differences between them is a product of their contrasting population densities and their proximity (or lack thereof) to a major city.
Of all the differences I observed, the one I find most striking is the highly competitive nature of many in suburbia versus the more relaxed and congenial aspect of rural Maine. This contrast is especially stark when dealing with strangers in a situation where one’s anonymity is assured, e.g., driving a car.
In Fairfield County, Connecticut and other outlying suburban areas of New York City driving long ago devolved to an intense competitive sport. Many drivers either believe that they have an inherent right or obligation to be ahead of anyone in front of them, or believe that they have a moral duty not to let the self-entitled jerk behind them get in front of them. (I tended more toward being the latter of these two sociopathic deviants.)
Put these two particular classes of drivers on the same road at the same time and you will create the perfect medium for road rage. It is also hazardous to those with heart disease and/or ulcers.
The Law of Large Numbers
In Maine we lived in Cumberland County where in 2016 the population is just shy of 285,500 residents who inhabit 1,217 square miles along the coast. I have returned now to Fairfield County, which has nearly 940,000 residents living in an area of 837 square miles. The population densities per square mile in the two counties then are:
- Cumberland, ME 234 souls
- Fairfield, CT 1,123 souls
If the number of asshole drivers is 1% of the total population in each of these areas, you are almost five times more likely to have to deal with one of these idiots while driving to or from work in CT than in ME. Given that more than 125,000 Fairfield County warriors commute to New York City to work at some fairly competitive jobs, and many other highly competitive jobs have migrated to suburbia, the actual percentage of the population made up by competitive drivers in the CT county is likely inherently higher than in Maine.
Conservatively then, let’s assume that 2% of the population in Fairfield County pretend to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. (or Mrs, Jr., ladies can be like this too) when they drive. If the one asshole per 100 drivers rate in Maine holds steady, you are 10 times more likely to feel like you inadvertently drove onto the Daytona Speedway while in Fairfield County than in Cumberland County.
The reason for including these calculations here is that when I moved to Maine, I made a concerted, conscious effort to lose my own experienced and well-honed asshole driving style.
The Little Old Ladies from Passadumkeag
The Beach Boys never sang about them, but these little old ladies, and others like them, are a force in Maine. In terms of residents, Maine is the “oldest” state in the Union, so it’s logical that it has proportionately more “elderly” people driving on its roads than does any other state.
These folks are typically cautious and more deliberate in what they do and how they drive. Accordingly, I needed to learn patience behind the steering wheel. At first whenever I felt like shouting in frustration, I had to talk to myself down off the cliff to remember my goal. “Imagine that’s Mom driving that car.” That got my attention and before long I actually became a naturally patient driver. I even smiled while I drove.
While Maine may not have as many assholes on the road, they have their share. When they popped up in my rearview mirror I learned to wave them on and silently wish them well.
I congratulated myself to the changes I was making until I began to realize that I was actually on the cusp of becoming another senior citizen in the census poll with highest state average age in the country. Maybe along with my intent to change my driving style, I was naturally becoming one of the typically cautious and more deliberate drivers. If so, that was okay. It was a positive change no matter why.
Back to the Demolition Derby
- returned to the land of late-model, expensive, foreign-made sedans, cross-overs, SUVs, and sports cars,
- driven by masters of the universe
- who live in huge houses and
- drive aggressively because
- they can,
(please allow me a deep breath before I continue this run-on sentence)
- my patience is wearing thin again.
My self-esteem is once again being challenged by the bold arrogance of some drivers here. I’d left them, they hadn’t left me. In short, now that I’m back in Fairfield County I am starting to revert into an asshole driver.
Just last week a guy in Nissan sedan decided to jump the line of cars in front of him waiting at a red light. Our lane was clearly marked for those who were going to go straight. He chose to leave the back of our line (where I had been one stop-go cycle earlier) into the left turn only lane and pulled up next to my car. His intent was pretty obvious. He wasn’t in the wrong lane by mistake, he just believed that he deserved to be ahead of all the fools who comply with the proscribed traffic patterns.
Directly across the intersection from the guy’s car was the left turn only lane for cars coming toward us. The Nissan and I were both second in our respective lines so he was right beside my car. When the light turned green he rode the bumper of the car in front of him that was also jumping our line. Their lane’s first car barely gained our lane in front of our first car, but our first car yielded no room for the Nissan to pass. Now it was up to me to preserve the honor of our lane by denying the lane jumper his objective. So I did. When the Nissan asshole began to turn I, the Ford Escape asshole, ignored it and blew past him as did several cars behind me. We left the Nissan stuck nose-to-nose with the cars in the turning lane from the other direction. They were not happy with him for blocking their ability to turn.
Mine was a fine piece of competitive defensive asshole driving. I scolded myself and grinned.
I truly don’t want to return to the ‘me’ that I’d worked so hard to abandon in Maine, but I have a natural aversion to letting other assholes take advantage of this asshole. If I choose to let them have their little victories, I’d just like them to know that I could have denied them their ego rushes if I wanted to. Short of installing a public address system in my car, I haven’t figured out how to do that.
I guess I have to be content with knowing that myself. Who cares what they think?
My goal is that next time I’m in that situation I want to let the jerk have the lane and not care. I just don’t know if I have it in me to be that mature yet.
For an in-depth philosophical analysis of, and suggestions on how to manage, these types of folks, I highly recommend the work of Aaron James in his book, Assholes. *A Theory
I always considered myself to be as generous as the next guy (I could have taught a graduate level course in Comparative Generosity), and I’m sure I was about as average as one could be. I only learned about true generosity and the real joys of giving from my wife. Having been a lifelong practitioner of giving, Doris is an accomplished expert.
Breaking me in, she started small. “Is that all you’re leaving for the tip?”
For the past 45 years I’ve witnessed the pure joy she gets from giving to un-expectant people: family, friends, and strangers. Gradually at first, and then more readily, I’ve come to share that joy.
As my fingers have been dancing on my keyboard, I literally just overheard Doris speaking on the phone in the next room to someone named Doug who must have been working in some retail outlet’s call center. In signing off the call she said, “I want to thank you Doug for all the help you’ve given me this morning. You were really great and I want you to know I really appreciate it.” Now, what did that cost her? How do you think Doug felt about her compliment? How often do you think Doug gets compliments like this? The neat thing for me is that when deserved I too now make a point of speaking person to person to a Doug and expressing genuine gratitude. I picked that up from Doris.
She is prone at times to go even another step beyond. On the phone, in a restaurant, in a Lowes or a Home Depot for that matter, she asks a worker who has been very helpful to her, “Who is your Manager?” It’s actually funny, but also a bit sad, that most times the person she wants to praise to his/her manager, is visibly shaken and fearful of that question until Doris follows on with, “I want to tell the manager what a fine job you did for us.” Likewise, when the summoned manager arrives, it’s usually like a student called to the Principal’s office. The relief on the manager’s face when Doris delivers her message of gratitude then becomes a broad smile.
I dare anyone to walk away from that encounter in a bad mood.
Giving is now a very soul-satisfying endeavor for me. The joy (I know I am repeating that word, but it has no peer, joy is felt in the soul) of giving reaches my core. The happy surprise of the recipients of unexpected generosity is literally priceless. Just the message that someone cares can be a gift that reaches the soul.
So I believe generosity is a fundamental method of communicating soul-to-soul. When someone says, “I’m truly touched by your generosity,” it’s the soul that has been “touched.” Touching and being touched that deeply can be so exquisite it can bring tears.
Like many, many people, we support what we consider to be worthwhile causes and organizations with donations of money, goods and services. That is always good for our souls. But we also enjoy helping people in need who we meet or hear about. Most often the help we give is provided anonymously – somehow that makes the experience more joyful for us.
I’m still a novice compared to my wife, but I get to share in the wonderfulness of her giving. I offer but one more recent instance that captures the essence of what she sometimes does with our resources.
We recently had a mid-afternoon lunch at a local diner. The nearby high school had obviously finished another day of classes; several well-mannered students occupied tables at the far end of the diner. While we enjoyed our meals the kids left sporadically in small groups and drove away. Those at the largest table were the last to leave. A few minutes later we heard their waitress moan, “Oh no. They stiffed me again.” The kids had paid their bill but left no tip. In the exchange between the waitress and the owner of the diner at the cash register, we learned their check had come to about $100. The waitress was more saddened than angry about the situation.
We finished our meals, left our usual tip on the table, and approached the owner at his pay counter to settle our check. Before leaving, Doris reached into her wallet and handed the man a $20 bill and said, “We overheard what happened. After we leave, please give this to the waitress.” He smiled warmly and said “Thank you, I certainly will.”
We had a very nice drive home.
Sometimes the giving that’s not tax deductible is the best.