There are several things I respect in life, but seldom, at my age, do they flash to the forefront of consciousness. Instead, I do what I can to be respectful as circumstances arise. Today, in one small conversation, it was as if a flashbulb had gone off and I felt somehow blessed.
It was all pretty mundane.
It began when my wife and I drove six or eight miles to a nearby community to consult with Bill, a financial adviser I had chosen to oversee what was left of my 401k plan after I retired. I needed someone to give me pointers because, although I suppose I like money as well as the next person and I am capable of exercising care ... still, I don't much want to be bothered. Money is a tool, not a status and, with an attitude like that, I needed a careful voice to oversee or suggest or lay out options in whatever world retirement might mean. I had a house and a family and needed to be thoughtful. Bill was my choice to help me think.
I have never seen Bill without a tie. I have never seen his hair uncombed. I have never seen his fingernails dirty. In what I would guess is his early 50's, Bill looks like the embodiment of what it means to take a shower. But Bill is more interesting than his Boy Scout exterior. Since my retirement in 2009, we have talked money, but we have also segued into politics, religion and various other topics that friends might address. Bill is a devout Christian and makes no secret of it. Also, he doesn't push it. If I had to guess, I would say that Bill is not good because he is a Christian, but rather that Christianity is good because Bill is a Christian.
Anyway, after the hello-there amenities were over, and we all sat down to discuss finances, Bill mentioned briefly that he wanted to ask me about something he wanted to write -- something about the Rotary Club to which he belongs. In my file, he keeps clippings of everything I have written for the local newspaper ... not, as he freely admits, that he always agrees, but he likes the way I write. But that mention of his own writing project was immediately forgotten as we got into the bread-and-butter topic of the day ... the investments and what to do about them relative to the withdrawals that the government insists on after someone passes the age of seventy-and-a-half.
We had pretty much wrapped things up when I asked Bill what it was he wanted to write about the Rotary. He looked at me as if I had done him a favor and began his tale with a Boy Scout's respectful diffidence. He loved the community and world services that the Rotary Club was involved in. Its commitment to high ethical standards and peace in the world were right up his alley. Bringing water and food to those who had neither appealed to him.
I waited for the "but." Anyone who wants to write has got a "but" on his mind. And after an introduction that was no less true than the "but" in the offing, Bill got around to it.
Every week, his Rotary Club chapter would get together for a $20 lunch in a relatively upscale hotel dining room. They would eat and commune and cement relationships and perhaps discuss the details of one good work project or another. "When we started out, everyone brought a brown bag," Bill said ... and therein lay his quandary.
Bill pointed out that he knew of a local relief organization that generated $9 worth of food for every dollar donated. And this was the nut of his dissent ... suddenly the food on his Rotary-lunch plate seemed almost obscenely self-serving. Why not go back to brown-bagging and use the lunch money to extend the benevolent reach of the Rotary mission -- to serve those who most needed it? The camaraderie of getting together would not be upended by eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and the money might do some good for those who were honestly hungry?
For some, such a query may seem small potatoes, but the Rotary and its mission dovetails like DNA with Bill's core hopes and beliefs. He loves the good works, but this fly in the ointment is serious to him. He mentioned thinking of quitting ... but that hasn't happened yet, I gather.
I said that if he wanted another pair of eyes to look over what he might choose to write as a Rotary editorial opinion, I would be happy to do so. I pointed out that there would be many who would dissent from his dissent -- lunch was one of the perks, one of the good times, one of the necessary times -- so it would be best if his writing made it clear that this was strictly his point of view, his voice, his questioning... no need to call down some heavenly mandate or wider ethical principle.
Bill took my email address and who knows what will happen.
Only later, as I thought about things, did I realize how much I respected a man or woman who, while pedal-to-the-metal about any given interest or love, nevertheless loves it enough to step back and see its flaws. How tiresome are the zealous who can proclaim a "110% effort" while lacking the faith to question what simply does not square up. Lock-step supporters ... bleh. Whether the cause is noble or ignoble, still the unwavering are not patriots ... they are simply fools fooling themselves and lying into the bargain.
I ache for guys like Bill who find the courage to look in the mirror, who may or may not stay the course, but do not duck their honesty.
In Buddhism as a practice, it is sometimes said that participants should give themselves to that practice "100%." No holding back. Nothing kept in reserve. No escape hatches. A total commitment. And I think this is a good admonition ... but it is not an admonition that one person can give to another. It is an admonition that individuals come to in their own sweet and sometimes stumbling time.
Bill strikes me as a person up to his armpits in the walk-the-walk of his own principles. He is not about the jettison them for some convenient intellectual argument. But however deep his commitment, he also seems to know that a deep commitment will always remain the shallow end of the pool as long as there is no ability to chew and digest the pits at the center of the sweetest fruit. Stay in the Rotary or leave it; raise hell or go-along-to-get-along ... no difference as long as the courage exists not to believe everything you think.
Bill has done me a favor.
He has excited my get-down-and-kiss-the-earth respect.