Sunday, June 17 , 2018, 5:53 pm | Overcast 64º


Tim Durnin: Stepping Outside Our Niche for the Common Good

'The Emperor’s New Clothes' has become an enduring parable of my life

Visiting with family in Las Vegas, I became entangled in a heated discussion about Olympian Oscar Pistorius and his participation in the Summer Games. While Pistorius’ story is inspirational, as is the man, the verdict is in on his competitive advantage. Science and data have spoken.

The conversation about Pistorius led me into another impassioned discussion with my nephew Patrick. Patrick deserves some definition here. He stands 6 feet 2 inches, is ruggedly handsome and an authentically good person to his core. He graduated as a top gun last year and is now piloting F-18s out of Virginia.

If you were to set him and his darling wife, Cara, against Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, Patrick and Cara would win every time. They are a charmed and charming presence.

So it was with some trepidation and concern that our dialogue continued. Patrick’s position is, to be concise, that it doesn’t matter if he has an opinion on a particular topic and generally chooses not to voice one. Running his finger through the mortar between two tiles, he said, “This is what I know, this narrow little channel. Anything outside of that is really not my concern.”

He stretched both hands from the mortar line and, touching the stones to either side, continued, “I don’t know about things out here, and whatever I may think about these things it’s not going to make a difference. I focus on what I know because I can have the greatest impact here in this narrow channel.”

I understand Patrick’s position, but it has haunted me since the conversation ended. The reason that Patrick is a top gun is for the very reason he so eloquently demonstrated his take on life. He is focused, driven and immersed in his niche. Yet I find myself resisting that notion.

One of the most memorable and enduring parables of my life was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. A sense of justice, fairness and doing the right thing has not only defined my place in the world, but has been the source of my greatest disappointments and defeats.

My naiveté and assumptions about the nature of people (that they are inherently good) have caused me great harm, and yet I cannot seem to let them go. Thus, I find myself cheering for the underdog, fighting for what is right, fearlessly telling the naked Emperors of their overconfident body image.

Walking away from the conversation with my nephew, I had to concede that he might be correct, that perhaps the best and only thing one can do is focus on what is front of them, what one knows. It is certainly working for him.

And yet my passions burst and reach beyond my narrow channel into territory better navigated by those whose niche it is. But I have discovered that it is those very people, those who know their place so well that they defend their place and their position in spite of all reason and rationality.

And so I fight on, my hands, opinions and passions reaching across the stones. I just can’t seem to help myself. I will end with a fitting quote I have come to live by.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt

— Tim Durnin is an independent consultant for nonprofit organizations, schools and small business. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read his previous columns.

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