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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