Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Man for All Seasons?

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Courage or Selfish Self-righteousness?

Of all of the Broadway plays, where we could have run into our friend who's a monk yesterday, "A Man for All Seasons" made the most sense. Our friend had been a VP in IT at JP Morgan Chase, and then took a package. And then 9/11 came and his panoramic view, including of the twin towers, was less desirable. And then his religious calling was more desirable and he sold his home and worldly belongings, and finally joined a monastery on the Hudson River.

It made sense that our friend would be drawn to a play about the Lord Chancellor in King Henry VIII's court, who went to his death for his religious convictions. In our case, it was simply one in a series of plays to which we had subscribed. He was meeting friends there, but we caught up at the intermission a bit.

Talking about the plot, our friend said to our other friends and Pat, "That's why I like Sarah," he said, "Because she has a conscience." I was thrilled and completely self-conscious at once -- afraid of coming off as self-righteous, and reminded of what a thin line it is.

At dinner, one of our friends said, "I thought that Sir Thomas Moore was amazing, but as we're sitting here now, I wonder if he wasn't selfish, thinking of his convictions at the expense of his family, who also suffered as a result.

Conscience or Judgmental Self-rigtheousness?

"I want to tell you a story that doesn't necessarily reflect well on me," I said. "Years ago, I had a bulimic friend, who I had known since we were 15, and who was not trying to end the bulimia, but rather was in denial about it. She stole a cookie from the bin while we were grocery-shopping at age 22. I was upset with her, especially when her response was, 'Don't worry, I'd just bat my eyes at the Produce boy if I had to.'"

"At the time," I continued, "I was most disturbed by her plan to charm her way out of the shop-lifting incident, and I also judged her: I decided that she figured, If I don't pay for the cookie, then I didn't eat it, which I decided was more evidence of her denial of her eating disorder. I had no compassion for her and never forgot that it had happened."

"A year later, my friend had just taken the Bar exam for Law school and had passed, and apparently had given my name as a reference for the State Board to call, without asking me. I answered the phone and the spokesperson asked me to give a reference for my friend. I said that I couldn't."

"When I spoke with my friend, I told her why I felt I couldn't provide a reference and she responded breezily, 'Don't worry. I just gave them another name.' But we were never friends after that."

"Oh, they called you?" Pat said, "I didn't remember that."

"Yeah, and I wouldn't give a reference. Of course, as you know, she's a hugely successful partner in a top-tier global law firm now [Google confirmed it], and so my act of conscience or self-righteousness didn't ultimately harm her future."

"I'd have done the same thing," said one of our friends.

"Are you just saying that because we're trying to be friends?"

"*Trying?*" said her partner.

"I just meant that these are the early days [of the friendship]," I said.

"No, I really think I would have done likewise, but then I"m really a rules-based sort of person."

"So am I," said Pat.

Our other friend, I could tell, saw it as complex and not clear.

"I don't ever remember doing anything for which I wasn't prepared for the consequences," Pat said.

I feel defensive as I write this: When it came time to endorse my friend, it was her bald lack of contrition that made my compassion impossible...of course, I know that if I were a better person, it's likely that I would have found a way to have a further conversation with her about the episode, and to gain some resolution about it, so that I'd never have had to disappoint her during her road to her profession.

It's moments like this series with my friend that stay with me 20+ years later and that were triggered by the on-stage drama. I'm sure that our friend, the monk, would have had a lovelier way of handling the dilemma than the way I chose....

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