Row Your Boat Ashore

I'm vacationing in Lebanon, using this time to get up to speed on Facebook. How's Arkansas treating you? Let me know when you can. Bye, Michael"

This came last August. I had just joined Face­book as well. After seven months, I fig­ured out a reply.

I delayed writ­ing for two rea­sons. One, Michael, is because you always ask these ques­tions. Any­one else, and the answer can be, “Arkansas has been great.” But at col­lege you with that warm, inter­ested gaze intended your ques­tions to be con­sid­ered thought­fully with a super­fi­cial answer being almost an insult to you.

The other rea­son I real­ized this week was envy. Yes, one of the seven dead­lies.

One of the great things about Face­book is its abil­ity to find peo­ple. Michael was a good friend at Stan­ford from sopho­more year through grad­u­a­tion, when we lost contact.

Michael is intensely bril­liant and in col­lege stud­ied Por­tuguese so he could work at a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion in Brazil. I don’t know how far he got in that early plan, only that he now is a respected pro­fes­sor in Britain. I guess any­one would be impressed, not just me.

My first mem­ory of him is of an early con­ver­sa­tion with him ask­ing, “Ben, what is it like to grow up in Arkansas?” and I replied that with no neu­tral basis of com­par­i­son, no reli­able answer is pos­si­ble. “I am not my own con­trol group,” I said, which I’ve restated many times since, for other cir­cum­stances. Michael insisted, kindly and with no hint of patron­iz­ing, that he really wanted to know. I tried to tell him. In later vis­its we’d piece together more. He told me of Con­necti­cut and well-to-do neigh­bors and how his father was a top exec­u­tive at a major food cor­po­ra­tion. I tried to describe Fort Smith, its school sys­tem, the vari­ety of child­hood friends, and how and where I flour­ished and flailed. He got as much of that as I did about him Back East. If he visu­al­ized (in hind­sight) Sling Blade, then I imag­ined The Ice Storm.

Michael could talk about the poten­tial of multi­na­tion­als and I about report­ing and edit­ing at The Stan­ford Daily, and it was par. The envy would be that Michael really could land a job in Brazil while my chance for an entry-level job at The Wash­ing­ton Post was pretty laughable.

The thing about envy — and the other car­di­nals as well — is their pos­si­bil­ity. For most of the 10 Com­mand­ments, effort is needed, say to mur­der or steal. For any of the Seven Dead­lies all a per­son has to do is exist. You don’t envy things that are impos­si­ble, just the things you could do, at least the­o­ret­i­cally. I could have angled for a career in high busi­ness, one with an exotic flair. That puts things in per­spec­tive: I would not want that life. But switch­ing to busi­ness and find­ing intern­ships and men­tors in finance or man­age­ment, yeah, could’ve.

The Seven Dead­lies are not sins except when in excess. Every one dri­ves us into being bet­ter people.

  • Envy: Fas­ci­na­tion with what the other fel­low has sharp­ens your own goals: What do you really want?
  • Greed: I must have fast Inter­net access, a cell phone and cable TV. There’s a lot of other things that’d be nice to own. Not even the “must’s” are needed, but any of which get me to work, almost on time, every day.
  • Wrath: Know­ing what you dis­like is just as impor­tant as nam­ing what you like. Act­ing on it turns anger to use­ful energy. Let­ting wrath fes­ter, well that is a sin.
  • Pride: With­out gain­ing skills then acknowl­edg­ing with some glee that yes you can, you won’t.
  • Glut­tony: Why not fin­ish the bag of chips? It’s a weekly treat, not a daily fix. The down­side to sati­ety is bore­dom, not to men­tion debt.
  • Sloth: Know when to knock off for the night and that some days have more energy than oth­ers. The other six dead­lies usu­ally keep sloth from tak­ing over.
  • Lust: Ven­tur­ing out amid the beauty of the world gives one rea­sons to bathe and not slouch, to lis­ten and not assume, to make the most of life with one’s mate.

If Michael and I were to talk now, we’d quickly learn of one another’s tri­umphs but also tragedies or just set­backs and shocks. I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised to learn he might have envied me then. What would he have fan­cied? I likely had more fun day in and out on cam­pus than he, though we both were nerds.

How’s Arkansas treat­ing me? Michael, it’s been great. Can’t speak for the future, but it has been what I thought I wanted and seemed to have needed. You should visit. It will be what you expect along with some unex­pected dis­ap­point­ments but with many more fea­tures that will sur­prise you, with a touch of envy.

Your friend,

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