"The more he talked of his honor the faster we counted our spoons."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Lately, with Memorial Day just past and the politics of presidential valor ongoing, I've been thinking about medals: who earns them, and why.
Sam had just returned from the Navy and was looking for a job. A good sailor, he had accumulated the customary awards and citations, and listed them carefully on the resume he submitted to prospective employers. After a few weeks one opportunity sounded promising. The manager of the small franchise company even hinted that, if he stayed with the firm long enough, Sam could become the manager himself someday.
"But," the not too aspiring job applicant told his parents, "I don't want to work for 30 years."
Having already passed the 30-year work mark myself, I smile at this story and remember fondly a related phrase from one of my favorite preachers, the late Dr. Vance Havner. Assessing his then current generation, the older and wiser man said, "The trouble with folks today is that they're wearing too many medals and not enough scars."
Had Sam heard the old gentleman's words he might not have recognized they were aimed at workophobes like himself. But as someone who has complained a time or two about all the work I have to do, I'm sure the preacher's words were also intended for me. In fact, I remember vividly a time when I, too, tried to "go directly to Park Place without passing go." The setting was a music composition class in college and I was protesting my less-than-perfect grade.
"But," I whined to the professor, "I worked on that piece last night for five hours straight."
The professor was unimpressed. "I don't see any holes in your paper," he said.
Writing music is something like working a crossword puzzle: lots of trial and error, pencil ends blunted and, consequently, lots of eraser-causing holes in your paper, which my composition didn't have. Not enough scars, my professor seemed to say, for the medals I hoped to earn one day in the music world.
Searching for shortcuts to the medal round is a common practice today, not just in music or promotion in the workplace, but everywhere. My piano students often ask, "How much time (translation: how little) do I have to practice each week before I'm good enough to play for parties?" The lure of money and medals will keep them going as long as the scars on their time and play schedules don't interfere.
The shortcut formula in any regimen scares me. Do any of the following incidents strike a bell?
The teacher assigned a book report, but I read the classic comic instead;
Look how much money we can save if we use -inch plywood instead of 5/8;
No money down, no payments for six months.
I worry about a generation taught that nothing is painful or difficult, and nothing has to be paid for today. I worry when "deals" replace credentials, profits supersede quality, and medals are claimed and expected, but unearned.
Not all scars are visible, not all medals fit in the display case above the mantle and once in a while your ticket wins -- which is to say, medals don't always tell the whole story.
But I think what the preacher meant and my professor taught with his low grade and caustic remark is that, most of the time, working for, completing the course for, cutting no corners for and accruing a few scars on the way to the medals we seek is the greatest reward of all.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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