Monday, March 31, 2008

Being in Tune with Others Matters

Last year I attended a conference for entrepreneurs who are passionate about ethics in business. The conference organizer is a well known pastor who had a star-studded list of presenters. As I listened to everyone intently there were some speakers that resonated more than others. But I learned an invaluable lesson about myself concerning one who had not immediately struck a cord with me. An interesting encounter happened the morning of my departure that caused me to see myself better and to love deeper. The principles gleaned from the conference were immediately enacted.

I arose very early that morning to prepare for my departure back to Michigan. As I had some hours before checkout, I went to get my usual Starbucks and took a walk along the boardwalk. Walking, I noticed a young African American man, no more than 21 or so writing the name “Mike” on a bench and doing so with considerable skill. On the other half of the bench was the name “Alton.” Both were beautifully drawn, perfectly aligned. I praised the artwork, asking him which name was his and wondered if his talent could have found another surface besides the public bench that graced the boardwalk.

In soft respectful tones the budding artist agreed that it wasn’t the proper place to display his art work and apologized. I loved him immediately. His name is Alton and Mike is his younger brother. After speaking for a little while, Alton reached deeply into his pant pocket that seemed to be sweeping the ground, pulled out a picture of his brother, and a laminated wallet-size copy of his high school diploma. He was very proud of both.

“This is my brother Mike,” Alton said, with great pride. “It’s just me and him.” Mike was a young athelte all suited up in his football jersey with outstreatched arm, skin in hand, as if he was about to throw a touchdown pass. Yes! He was beautiful. But so was the leaner frailer darker less confident young man that stood before me. Though, I don’t think he thought so. The character “Bigger Thomas” from Richard Wright’s Native Son came to mind. There was a deep longing and angst in his body that drew me to him.

Everything in me wanted to help this kid, besides giving him all the money in my pocket; there must be something more I could do for him. I was soon fighting feelings of complete helplessness until I remembered a speaker from the conference, a native of the city that seemed to have a great love for young people. Immediately, my heart leapt with joy and tears filled my eyes. And this speaker was one who did not hold my interest as the others, whose name I could not even recall.

At that moment this nameless speaker meant more to me than all of the other speakers combined! I could direct my new young friend to him; surely he could help Alton. I learned something standing there, something that I knew but came to me afresh: everyone has a role to play and it is not about us individually, but about mutual respect for our diverse understanding, level and role; it’s about our individual roles played out together in the greater scheme of things to lift us collectively higher, greater, further still. I felt ashamed of my selfishness and wished to apologize for my silent disrespect, that of not listening patiently.

As I could not think of this particular speaker’s name readily, I gave Alton my cell phone number written on a paper wristband he had in his pocket from a party the night before. (It appeared that he had not even been home; he had not even slept.) I would find the schedule from the conference and give him the speaker’s name when he called. Surely, I could find a number if I had a name. I hugged Alton, told him I loved him, and we parted.

As I walked away from him down the boardwalk, I felt my heart thumping louder and louder with each step. I turned around to see Alton bent over on the bench, caressing the wristband that held my name. My heart was breaking. When he saw me in the distance coming toward him, he jumped up and running towards me asked if he could walk with me. We talked and walked along the river and I invited him back to the hotel for breakfast. As we entered the hotel I could tell that he was quite impressed. I had him take a seat as I went upstairs to get the speaker's name that eluded me, but whose face now loomed large in my consciousness.

“John Jones!” John Jones!” (I've changed the name here.) I said his name again and again, being ecstatic with its refrain! I rushed down to the lobby as not to keep Alton waiting, not to cause him any discomfort, sitting in a new environment all alone. But he appeared just fine when I arrived—perhaps a little out of sorts, but happy to be at the Omni nonetheless. There was a cool confidence in his expression that I held on to, a confidence that could be developed. This confidence showed itself again as we sat for breakfast.

At breakfast Alton watched me intently, mimicking me precisely and doing a fine job at it--even down to eating with both fork and knife simultaneously, the European way. I introduced him to the waitstaff, as I had become friendly with them over the past three days; he responded respectfully and warmly. How beautiful he was sitting across from me.

While upstairs I grabbed a book that I had purchased at the conference about living in the moment and embarcing possibilites. When we sat for breakfast I inscribed it to him. He promised to read it and write to give me the highlights. As we stood saying our goodbyes, he seemed to loose his footing. I reached to assist him, asking if he was OK. He responded. “I’m just a little weak,” he said, holding his stomach. “Nobody’s ever taken me to breakfast before. Nobody ever pays any attention to me.” I assured him that I noticed him immediately and that the pleasure was truly mine. He had made my day.

But the story doesn’t end there. A few hours later, just as I was actually boarding the plane at the airport, I got a call from a Brother Golden, a youth minister who was at the conference who owned a business in the city in which the conference was held. He had introduced himself to Alton after noticing the book he was reading. Alton had gone back to the boardwalk to read the book I had inscribed to him and Brother Golden happened to notice what he was reading. They spent a couple of hours together and Brother Golden even hired him that very morning. The last words I spoke to Alton were “from this day on your life will make a sharp change for the better.” I wanted to infuse him with hope and this kind of hope does not disappoint. Words could not express the joy I had as I flew back to Michigan.


Ganesh Mugundu said...

What you did to Alton is truly inspirational and motivating. You are wonderful human being.

judith ellis said...

Thank you, Ganesh, for your kind words. Thanks also for stopping by.

What I have learned after many years of actively looking for ways to serve others is that people respond to kindness. People respond to nonjudgemental actions of others who have their best interest at heart. My internal question is always one of motive: why do I do what I do?

In my daily search to serve others, I do not look for rewards, but rewards follow those who seek to do good. Opportunities are endless, but when you seek to do good, they tend to follow you. Serving others is essential to life and business.

My daily question is: who have I served?

judith ellis said...

Kindness is the endless chain of begetting: kindness begets kindess begets kindness begets kindness begets continuous change in the world.

Ganesh Mugundu said...

You are absolutely right about kindness. I try to help people as much as I can by sharing my experience and helping someone to find job. I sometimes do feel that I am over helping and making others dependent on me for minor issues. Where do you think one should draw the line? For example, I helped a good friend of mine to pursue higer education, get a job in a company I used to work for by recommending him to my boss. He quit after 10 months, joined a different company and contacts me for some help regards to his work. We went back on forth on his decision to quit and future prospects in the new company. I dont want to help him now, coz it seems to me that I am spoonfeeding him.

I dont know if I am doing the right thing.

judith ellis said...

I am very prudent about recommending people for jobs unless I am sure of not only the person's skills and abilities, but also their attitude in relating with others. Some people have loads of skills and abilities, but are lazy, arrogant, or obstinate. These things are just as important to me as skills and abilities.

While I am a firm believer in helping others in life and work, I tend not to be the type that indulge in spoonfeeding. I am quite patient with others, and tend to be quite understanding, but I do not continue in the same vein forever. I tend to mix things up. Certain things are needed at various levels of relationships in life and work.

It's a matter of how we do what we do when we do. This is all about judgement. I always check my motives first and then try to discern the hearts of others through relationships. Sometimes I am successful; other times I fail miserably. I must admit, however, to the former by far more than the latter.

Judgement is prudent to possess. This often comes through years of engaging in various relationships on many levels and with various people. I seek out these things.

Once we have been burned by others, we tend to be more cautious about putting ourselves out. However, prudence should not lessen one with a big heart. Having wisdom is the balance.

Does this make sense to you?

Ganesh Mugundu said...

What you have said makes a lot of sense to me. Sometimes I wonder why people approach me (or anyone) only when they are in need of something. Is it because I do not say NO? Or is it just my experience? Sorry to fill in my thoughts in your comments section..

"why do I do what I do?" is a good question to think about.

judith ellis said...

I sincerely believe that we are helpers one to another. What we put out in the universe is spread broadly and given back to us, if not from the ones we help from countless of others.

It is my pleasure that you fill my comments with your thoughts. I hope that I can say something, anything that will be useful.

Establishing relationships, which includes both giving and receiving, is most important in life and work. Those who only wish to withdraw from me without ever making deposits, I shy away from. Not that I expect it, but it says a lot about who they are as people.

In fact, I communicate with many and give of my substances and time often but do not expect much from others. Funny thing, though, this not expecting assures deposits in many tangible and intangible ways and from an array of sources.

Expect an abundance of goodness but from whom it is given do not place great priority. Great things come in unsuspecting places and from unlikely sources. Turn your umbrella upside down.

Life is beautiful!