I recently took a walk in greater Indianapolis, where I had traveled to give a keynote. Block after block, I brooded over a question: “Why keep trying when success is unlikely?”
You may know that much of my work is guiding corporate executives toward operating in a manner that serves their business and society. I agree with journalist Thomas Friedman that, in the United States at least, business is “our last best hope” – for American democracy, the natural world and our semi-functioning society. Yet, despite my efforts and those of thousands of competent and diligent colleagues, American businesses don’t appear to be on track to save much of anything. Meanwhile, time is running out. There will soon be nothing left to save. These were my dark thoughts as I shuffled across the urban landscape.
Fortunately, something distracted me from my existential melodrama. Off the side of the road was a maroon sedan with a terribly flat tire. Khaki-clad buttocks and legs were the only visible part of the single person in sight, the rest of whom was headlong in the trunk muttering expletives.
“Are you OK?” I asked the buttocks and legs.
The swearing stopped, the mystery being emerged from the trunk and I found myself face-to-face with a lovely woman no older than 25. “Not really. I can’t find the lug wrench. My baby is sick. I hardly slept last night…I’m having a rotten day,” she said in an unsteady voice. Then she started crying.
After we exchanged names, I said “Tracy, you need a break – take a seat on that rock a safe distance from traffic. I’ll handle this.” Before you imagine me jacking up the car, spinning a lug wrench and hoisting up the spare, let me clarify. By “handle it,” I meant pulling out my phone and contacting AAA.
While an affable roadside assistance technician did the manual labor I had cleverly circumvented, Tracy and I chatted. The conversation drifted to the name she gave her infant son, Atlas. She explained that, according to Greek mythology, Atlas led a 10-year war against the formidable Zeus and fellow Olympian gods. The victorious Zeus condemned Atlas to hold up the heavens (not the world, as is commonly thought) far from earth.
I was perplexed. Why would anybody name their first born after a subjugated dude forced to do interminable labor? Worse, his effort kept the heavens beyond the reach of us mortals. It did no good at all. My confusion must have shown because Tracy answered my question. The way she saw it, Atlas knew he was unlikely to succeed but his “deep integrity” led him to pursue what he believed in regardless. Atlas knew a Zeus’ reign would be atrocious, so he fought it. Period.
There I had it. A young stranger stranded roadside in the American Midwest answered the question I was not able to. Sure, it might appear futile to pursue a highly improbable goal – no matter how worthy. But if we don’t act in accordance to our beliefs, we lose our integrity. We start feeling fragmented. We become embattled. We disintegrate a tad.
Why, then, should we continue to pursue worthy goals that are nearly impossible to reach? Because it’s how we bask in deep integrity. It’s how we give ourselves a chance at attaining peace.