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Opportunities, Networking, and Introversion

August 23, 2011

Mixed in with my last talk from my father (which I mostly covered in A Lesson in Grace) was advice to take opportunities with which I am presented.

I see how it works with his message about grace/graciousness/gratitude. Given that so much in our lives is only possible because of the goodwill of others, in effect the same is true about opportunities. When we think of opportunities as being beneath us, we are showing our lack of gratitude and care.

When dad first started going on about this, I knew exactly what he was talking about. He was talking about how I dropped out of a business honors program/major at school.

It was a very passive thing. In order to maintain status within the program, you have to attend something like two or three “professional development” events a year. It’s really not that time intensive, when you look at it. I didn’t do them, so I was dropped from the program.

While I could provide excuses for why I didn’t do any (which I will inevitably do later in this article), I’m sure that someone who agrees with my dad’s position would just hear, “I am lazy” out of all the excuses.

My dad’s position was that as long as an opportunity didn’t require anything illegal or unethical, you should take it when presented. Now, maybe this is extreme, but at the very least, you should consider it.

As far as this is stated, I can’t really disagree. After all, so many of the counterarguments I could think about presenting sound lame…even to me. I mean, saying, “I just didn’t want to do professional development events” is a petulant answer, for sure.

…yet, in some ways, that was how I felt. A lot of the events were things like listening to executives speak. Many of them were during my class times, but there were certainly some for which I could have found time. However (petulant rationalization incoming…), many of the executives were from companies of whom I had never heard, industries about which I didn’t care. I didn’t want to do all this research to be an informed participant in the discussion/lunch/whatever for a company or industry about which I was only feigning interest.

I know the response: I should be grateful for the opportunities — which others really would kill for, but don’t get. And these are great opportunities. Who am I to hold myself “above” them?

In reality, the working world isn’t necessarily about doing what you want to do and pursuing your interests (this is probably where some of my more liberal arts-minded friends and professors would gasp at this professional/vocational approach to the university and to life.) To avoid these speaker series just because I am not interested in the subject matters is closing doors that could have helped. (And, it must be noted…executives tend to know people, so even if I didn’t want to work for x or in y industry…they might know people in industries I would like.)

So, I get all that.

Yet, I felt a bit claustrophobic at the narrative.

Look, I’m not an extroverted guy. I do like speaking in public, and I think I’m quite confident at it, but, if it makes any sense, it’s because it’s like acting, and I like to perform. But a lot of the activities and attitudes around networking just sound draining to me. At some point, having to act all the time is kinda tiresome (I hear the counter: but we always are managing impressions…we always are acting). So, my father’s advice, which I can see is helpful from the point of opening a lot of doors, seems to be something that would smother me.

(Did I tell y’all about the time I went to therapy during recruiting season? Probably not, because my depressing articles here drive people off even worse than my heart-felt ones do. But it was pretty pathetic.)

What really bothers me about all of this is how most people — my father included, probably — wouldn’t get this. They wouldn’t get the idea of being drained by the constant effort. At best, they would just not understand. But at worst, they would see it as something I just need to get over. Something I need to sacrifice in order to succeed in the world. A personality defect that I must overcome.

Sometimes, I think about that last part. A personality defect that I must overcome. Are there really things central to a person — like how they interact with people at a fundamental level — that must be overcome? Or are there things at the very least that a person may consider central to them that must be overcome? And if this is the case, what does that mean? Does the same person exist after you’ve gone and changed their personality? If someone admits that their personality needs to be changed, is that in some way admitting that they need to be extinguished from the face of the earth? A kind of suicide with bodily continuity.

Maybe these things don’t interest you. But I think about them a lot, because there are so many aspects about myself that I’ve come to suspect. In the end, I come on the side of opposing these suggestions, because I want to protect me.

(And then people tell me about Buddhist ideas about not-self, and try to convince me that this it just my ego trying to preserve an illusion.)

Anyway, let’s rewind. I did understand a lot of what my father was saying. But I also felt that his message was a bit inconsistent. He told me of a story…it’s a story I’ve heard before, but each time I hear it again, it is inflected with new information, a new perspective, a new lesson. A long time ago, he had an opportunity to advance in the military…but he didn’t take it because at the time, he couldn’t see how it would work out. (It involved a mentor of sorts pulling strings behind the scenes…but at the time, father was innocent enough not to understand how strings are pulled and so he thought that if he took this opportunity, it would jeopardize his current situation.)

He told me this story to point out that he should have taken the opportunity. He should have trusted his mentor.

…so I pressed him on it. I asked him if he had regrets for not taking the opportunity.

Father answered that he did not. He pointed out that if he had taken this opportunity, he would still be in the military. And he would be in the position where he would probably have been more involved in the Middle East. It’s possible he would be dead now. Dead or not, he wouldn’t have been able to be as involved in our lives.

In fact, he used this to talk about Grace. I capitalize it because it seems that Grace is just the latest in his way of referring to God without saying that word. As if, if he just doesn’t use the word, then I’ll find it easier to concede that deep down, I’m actually a theist after all.

By Grace, he was alive, able to be involved with his kids’ lives, etc., where others in similar situations (but who had taken these opportunities) had quite different family situations or perhaps injuries, or perhaps were dead. So perhaps it was Grace that kept him from taking that opportunity?

Grace or no, I viewed all of these things as positives. He seemed to as well. So I said: “In that case, how can you say you should have taken that opportunity, when you recognize that there are pros and cons to both sides?”

…but he wanted to have it both ways. He had no regrets, but he was absolutely sure that he should have taken that opportunity.

I wanted to press him further on the issue, but my dad has a weird dislike of philosophy. He seems to think that it’s all just sophistry: a way to twist everything and say nothing. I knew that if I pressed too far on his contradictory statements, he would just accuse me of that.

The inconsistency didn’t end with there…it was mired in the talk of Grace, as I mentioned in my last article. I’ve never really understood the exMormon and atheist arguments about believers employing confirmation bias until my father’s latest talk with me.

From what I understand, you begin to understand the nature of Grace when you consider all that you have that you might not have had (especially because others don’t have), or when you consider all that didn’t happen to you that could have happened to you. I should have recognized Grace, presumably, after surviving my car crash, because I could have died. Many others die from little and less.

…but Grace has a double whammy. See, you can’t hold it against Grace when bad stuff does happen, because it rains on the just and the unjust alike.

I know I’m supposed to be cultivating an attitude of gratitude, but this doesn’t lead me to suspect a caring god exists. It leads me to suspect that possibly the universe is zero-sum. When I don’t suffer, someone else does. Perhaps when I don’t take x choice and someone else does, whether the other guy or myself is better or worse off equals 0 in the end?

…but beyond that zero-sum possibility, I think of neutrality. I can be thankful that bad stuff doesn’t happen to me all the time because there’s nothing in the universe that actively hates me enough to subject me to endless misfortune. But I can recognize when bad stuff does happen to me that there’s nothing in  the universe that actively loves me enough to protect me from misfortune, either. In both cases, these do not discount the fact that there are people who may love me or hate me, and it’s what the people do that can really shake things up disproportionately one way or the other.


From → Dad Talk

  1. I think philosophy can be sophistry if it’s not grounded in reality and the everyday. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and a lot people make an assumption that if a text or presentation is so opaque that only a few people understand it, therefore it’s sophistry. This is not necessarily true. The everyday can be confounding. =)

    Anyhow, I’m here to discuss Buddhism’s unraveling of the self, which you seem to mention from time to time. It can turn into sophistry quickly if you try to apply it in the wrong context.

    First off, I do not think a person should begin with “there is no self” if they’re contemplating something like being less introverted. A lot of Buddhists actually hold to the concept of dharma, which basically means “the way things are.” The way things are is that we have to work for a living, we are usually born in and form nuclear families, we have personalities, and so on. There are bakers, and cobblers and candlestick makers. We’re not all celibate monks and nuns who sit around and meditate about not having a self.

    Historically, the way I think about the introduction of dharma into Buddhist thought is to compare it with the Protestant Reformation. It used to be that only Catholic priests would read the Latin of the Bible, and thus knew the words of God and everyone had to learn from this special class of people. The printing press was invented, the Bible translated, and more people could read the Bible for themselves, seeing the power dynamics behind the Catholic Church’s pseudo-holiness, leading to the Protestant Reformation. Similarly, in Buddhism, not everyone can be a celibate monk or nun, and the idea that only a special class of people who dedicate their lives to meditation and mindfulness get to succeed spiritually seemed unreasonable for the tradition. Thus, room was made for “the way things are,” where everyone can practice the Dharma (capitalized), or Buddha’s principles — although people who do dedicate their lives continue to hold a kind of prestige.

    A kind of epitomized story regarding dharma that I remember is in the Bhagavad Gītā (which is more Hinduism, back when Hinduism and Buddhism blended together in ancient India). The story is basically about a family feud, and there comes a point in which one of the protagonists has to fight his brother (and his army). He says to himself something along the lines of, “Wait a minute. Why am I doing this? Why are any of us doing this? We don’t have to fight. I don’t have to fight. I refuse.” He has his own army already lined up and so on. Lord Krishna comes in and tells him of his duty to fight, as it is the nature of a warrior and of the situation. He might think backing out is righteous, but it’s actually selfish. Inaction is not the same as mindful detachment.

    Think what you will of the story, but my point is that Buddhism isn’t just about “non-self.” It’s more about cultivating the self for the non-self.

    I’d recommend Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha.

  2. Thanks for the comment…I’ll have to add Siddhartha to my list of books to read on my Kindle (a long list indeed, these days)

    (P.S., so, wait, in the Bhagavad Gita story…did the guy end up fighting? Was that the point?)

    • Sorry, yeah, he did end up fighting and killing his brother, if I remember correctly. Perhaps a more modern example of the principle (since most of us don’t exactly lead armies) would be something like having a kid, and then if you become a Buddhist in search of non-self, that doesn’t mean you get to shed your responsibilities as a parent.

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