Tools and Reason

About once a month, I have dinner with friends I’ll call Jim and Bill. We used to meet at a wine restaurant, but for the past several months we’ve been meeting at Jim’s house where the food is better and the wine is just as good – and significantly cheaper.

Jim has an earthy Midwestern amiability and an almost childlike certainty that he’s welcome wherever he goes. His parents were demonstrative and loving, and he grew up without anger or angst, a happy kid, a happy man and, despite the loss of a wife to cancer after 29 years of marriage, a happy, well-adjusted adult. In short, he is an anomaly.

“You know what your problem is, Jim?” I said. “You’re normal. The rest of us are dysfunctional in some way or another, but you’re not. You’re normal. You’re the exception that proves the rule.”

It’s a trying time for Jim, who works in a specialized niche in the insurance industry. People up the food chain are trying to get rid of him, but they have bungled it badly, and Jim has the paper trail to prove it.

While the stress has taken its toll on him, it hasn’t damaged his fundamental goodness. And when I watch him, I am reminded that this is the fruit of a happy childhood.

Bill, on the other hand, is likeable, easy-going almost to a fault, and puzzled. When I watch Bill, I often feel like I’m looking in a mirror.

The other night, Bill was talking about his son William. William tried college and didn’t like it, waited tables and got good at it, and moved on to making more serious money waiting tables at the Ritz-Carlton.

That led to a job as a personal assistant to the wife of a musician, and a side job working for a concert promoter. While helping the promoter put together a show recently, William suggested another show with different acts.

“Why don’t you do it?” said the promoter. So William, at the age of 24, with little formal training and even less formal education, is putting together a musical event.

“He amazes me,” Bill said. “I could never do something like that.”

“What about it couldn’t you do?” I said.

I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t let him say that unchallenged. Because the issue wasn’t h lining up acts, securing a venue, hiring sound and lighting and catering people, and coming up in the black. The issue was self-doubt.

Bill has been around the block: he knows what he doesn’t know…and what he thinks he doesn’t know. He’s worked hard at reversing his limitations, which he knows are self-imposed, but he’s not there yet. His son, on the other hand, doesn’t know what he can’t or “shouldn’t” be able to do. So he tries new things anyway, and more often than not he succeeds.

It reminds me of the old BC comic strip, in which a child ant says to its mother, “If we can lift eight times our body weight, why can’t humans?”

Mother ant: “Because they are afflicted with the power of reason.”

Bill and I grew up in environments where encouragement was scarce. The danger in a statement like “I could never do that,” is that it reinforces a prophecy we’ve been fulfilling all our lives. It is particularly damning if you believe, as we both do, it’s possible to change our reality by the quality and content of our thoughts.

I write this not as criticism of Bill, but rather as an observation on the difficulty of changing. My struggle is overcoming the intellect’s limiting beliefs which have been conditioned by my past and accessing that stronghold of true intelligence, the heart. I am amazed at my mind’s inventiveness, at its refusal to stay focused and positive, but rather to run off like a dog and find something something repellent to roll in.

My friend Kitty, herself a seeker on the road less taken, commented once, “We have so many tools….” And indeed we do in this privileged time and place. But as Jim and Bill remind me, each in his own way, the issue is how we use them.

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