It was a tough week. So I tucked myself into bed a bit early on Friday evening and finished reading Jonathan Saffron Foer’s book called “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”.
I’m sure you could go to Amazon or Salon to read a real book review. The story is written from the perspective of a young boy, Oskar, whose father dies in the September 11th attack of the Towers. Oskar is, of course, grieving. He wears white and ‘heavy boots’, and keeps making up silly but interesting inventions.
While the story itself was well done, it’s the fundamental characteristics of Oskar (especially in contrast to the adults in the story) which remain with me this Saturday. The character is interesting to me because of the way he authentically, ethically, optimistically lives his life. Bet that hasn’t shown up in a book review yet. What we do matters surely, but it’s also the way in which we do our life’s work that matters. We not only produce things but we affect situations, people, outcomes by the way in which we we add value — the every day ways of empathy, compassion, discernment, and truth.
Here’s some stories from the novel that stood out for me:
Lie #67. Oscar tells the most crazy lies to his mother and others as he goes about his day. Some are to cover up this deep ache inside him and some are to avoid hurting her. Interestingly enough, he keeps track of the lies he’s told. In order to free up some time on the weekend so he can go on a search he doesn’t want to explain to his mom, he writes this letter to his piano teacher.
Cher Marcel, Allo, I am Oskar’s mom. I have thought about it a ton, and I have decided that it isn’t obvious why Oskar should go to French lessons, so he will no longer be going to go to see you on Sundays like he used to. I want to thank you very much for everything you have taught Oskar, particularly the conditional tense, which is weird. Obviously, there’s no need to call me when Oskar doesn’t come to his lessons, because I already know, because this was my decision. Also, I will keep sending you checks, because you are a nice guy. Votre ami devouee, Mademoiselle Schell.
Just the fact that he paid attention to the lie, and tracked each one, however small is important. Because if you don’t pay attention to the small ones and you get away with them, maybe one day you become Kenneth Lay and can’t figure out why people think you’ve done something so wrong. Ethical choices are made in small ways, not large ones, I’ve found.
Focus. Oscar is on this mad-hunt through the burroughs, and along the way, he pays attention to the people he meets. He could be stuck in his own personal tragedy, but as he meets many, many of New York’s finest residents, all with the last name Black, he pays intent attention to who they are, and what they need. He forges and reforges an understanding of the human condition: that all of us feel, that all of us need to be heard, that all of us are making choices every day and struggling with whether those are the right choices. I’ve found that in business, people often talk at each other and never really get what others are trying to say. Maybe that’s the angle I have because I’m not caught up in the drama of the situation but am there to build the solution. If everyone in business paid even 5% more attention to the people they are interacting with and giving them a chance to be heard, I think so much goodness could come from it.
Hope. It would be easy to think the world as bad, when you suffer a loss as big as the character of Oskar or our society did when the Towers fell. It’s how a person channels energy that matters. Hope or fear are the two megathemes that can shape one’s thinking. Oskar could be filled with fear and make most if not all his decisions on how to protect his heart from this point forward. That could be choices in how we vote, or how we ignore our own feelings. But he focuses on what he could do to change the world fundamentally. An example: he wants to invent an ambulance that would let people know that the person inside is still alive so no one needs to worry. It’s hope coming out as an invention.
We all have choices to make, in who we are and how we create value in the world. And I hope for all of us that you are driven to make the world better, in whatever it is you do. Along the way, look at how you do it as a differentiator.