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,
Ben

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