Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Defining Moments

Recently a colleague at work asked me for some help. Her daughter was scheduled to take the admission exams at the universities she was considering. One of these universities was requiring her to write a short essay explaining how specific events in her life demonstrated her character, and my officemate asked me to coach and motivate the kid.

That exercise got me thinking about my own life, and the events that define my own character. It’s quite amazing how these events paint a clear picture of myself, and reveal so many things that have escaped my attention. It’s like watching city traffic from the top of a tall building versus being part of the traffic on the road.

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and so with some perfect backward vision, here’s a look at some episodes from my past, and what they mean for me today.

A dramatic moment…

I was quite the thespian in my younger days, and one feather in my cap was performing the hugely demanding role of Azdak the judge in our high school production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. This was such a fun role, and what made it even more enjoyable for me was working alongside Hector, a very gentle, very funny, very lovable Puerto Rican guy. Hector’s character Shauwa was my character’s side kick in the play. In one scene, Hector was supposed to hand me a prop knife that I was to use for something. During one performance, he went onstage and forgot to bring the knife. When the cue came up and he reached toward his belt, his eyes widened in terror and his face turned as white as a sheet. No knife! Without missing a beat, I ad libbed, “Where is your knife, Shauwa? You pawned it again to visit your whore, didn’t you?” Then I pointed toward a bottle lying on the stage in front of me and bellowed, “Grab that bottle and bring it to me. I ought to stab you with it, you lousy goat!”

That was a defining moment, because everyone literally froze onstage, not knowing what to do next, not knowing how to get out of the royal kerfuffle we were in. And I carried on. I carried on and found the door through which we all jumped through to escape imminent disaster. This episode also bestowed upon me an abundant harvest of praises, affirmations, and the much sought-after pat on the back.

Years later, I’d like to think that I continue to wield this kind of on-my-toes, unflappable, spontaneous creativity that gets me through the thorniest of thorny situations.

A shameful moment…

Not all my defining moments are positive. Here’s one that hounds me to this day. I was also a wrestler back in high school. I competed at 136 lbs (62 kg). During one wrestling meet, I was feeling rather low, and didn’t have the competitive fire with me that day. My first bout was with a fellow from Faith Academy, who eventually won the championship for my weight division. I held my own for a while, even throwing a couple of surprising maneuvers that got me the upper hand, but I eventually lost out to superior technique and experience. I was more successful in the next match. The guy was also from Faith Academy, but, like me, wasn’t as polished or as experienced as my first opponent. I won the match on points, but I was dog-tired. I also ended up de-motivating myself by doing a quick survey of my future matches, and talking myself into submission. You see, the 136 lb. division is one of the most populated divisions in wrestling. In other weight classes, the wrestlers would commonly need to engage in two or three matches to make it to the championships for that division. In my division that day, I had four matches to survive, and the championship match if I made it that far. Five wrestling bouts. In one morning!!! In my mind, there was no way I’d survive the day. And in the remote event that I did make it to the finals, I’d have to face the tough guy from Faith Academy again. He beat me the first time. He’d beat me again in the championships.

My next bout was with this guy from Wagner High. He was kinda cocky, and at that time he struck me as a bit too intense. So we wrestled. I really really felt I could take him. He wasn’t as strong as me, although he was quite tough. And I felt my technique was more sound, more masterful. I knew deep in my heart I could win over this fellow. But at that time I executed my survival strategy for the day. I tanked. I was deliberately sloppy in my execution, and I allowed the Wagner High boy to take me down on the mat, and when he had done so, I let him pin me. And in so doing, I eliminated myself from the competition.

I spared myself from the agony and the pain and the hard, hard work lined up for me that day. But even as my mind flashed a secret smile at my deviousness, my heart instantly felt the shame. It didn’t feel right. And I knew, even then that I regretted the lost opportunity. What was I thinking???

I was thinking of the easy way out, that’s what. And this has persisted in many instances when I’ve had to deal with adverse situations. When the going got tough, I’d often take a quick survey of the odds versus the hardships, and many times, I’ve walked away from the challenge, opting for the easy way out.

Now that I think about it, I remember a college professor of mine wryly commenting that I practiced the culture of avoidance. He was right, of course, but I refused to accept that.

Energized moments…

Back to something positive… My wife and I serve at a leadership seminar for our local marriage encounter group. It’s a weekend thing that happens every quarter or so. During the Saturday session, right after lunch, for the last three years or so, I’ve been assigned my own special session – a 10-minute “picker-upper” where I lead all the participants in dancing to the tune of “YMCA” by the Village People.

I start off by demonstrating some of the dance steps we will be using. There are only eight or so major steps, which I developed myself, and we’ve used them for the last three years, with an occassional variation here and there. Then we all jump right in, and put these moves together with “YMCA” blaring full blast on the sound system. This is such a simple thing, but I always marvel at how much fun everyone has doing this crazy dance.

Each time I get to do this little act of mine, I get to demonstrate how I can energize/entertain the people around me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been quite a livewire. I think this is a good thing. When people are in a slump, I often create enough energy to get everyone going. There must be a practical use for this somewhere, somehow. Now all I have to do is work on being able to energize myself, when necessary!

Getting the sum total...

“A man is the sum of his actions, of what he has done, of what he can do, nothing else.” ~ Andre Malraux

So there you go. If M. Malraux is correct, then what do these actions make me? And what more can I become? The upside doesn’t sound bad… spontaneous, creative, quick-thinking, high energy. But the negatives are just as compelling… lazy, needs loads of motivation, unfocused, turns back on and walks away from tough situations. These then are a few of the factors that make up my own equation. The next few years or so will see me busy tweaking these factors to make sure that the equation nets a positive for me.

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