My friend Chuck died two years ago today and I’ve been thinking about him a lot.

Last week I told another friend of mine that, to my surprise, I am fundamentally an optimist. The friend wasn’t surprised at all. I’ve been thinking about that a lot too.

How could I possibly be an optimist?

And more, how could other people know that?

Sometimes I feel so outwardly negative and rigid. It seems that most people see through all that.

A lot has been written lately about the Dunning-Kruger effect where people who aren’t very competent tend to rate their competence way above where it is. Not only are we bad at something but we’re bad at seeing how bad we are and we end up convincing ourselves that we’re actually pretty good at it.

I wonder if there’s a corresponding effect for optimism.

How many people do we know who have no visible reason to be optimistic and feel good about the state of their world – and yet they do.

They have so little for themselves and yet they cheerfully break what they have in half and offer the bigger half to you.

I know people who belittle such people. They want them to understand how bad off they have things. I love that these people don’t feel that. It’s not that they don’t know their situation – they certainly do. It’s that they see that you need something that they’re able to give and they offer it.

How many people do we know who have way more than they need and should be happy and well adjusted – and yet they aren’t.

They have more than they could ever use in multiple lifetimes and yet they look at the fact that you need something as an indication that you have a character flaw and they offer nothing. Nothing but their scorn and perhaps a lecture.

I’m not saying all poor people are kind and all rich people aren’t. I’m saying that there are people in both camps who aren’t what we might expect.

And there is a vast middle where we have enough to be either way. We have enough and need to stop and appreciate what we have. We need to realize that even if we have what we have because of our hard work and dedication that other people work hard and are dedicated but somehow circumstances favored us. We benefited from more than just things that we could effect.

I think that that makes me an optimist.

The fact that other people help me get to where I need to get is a wonderful thing.

There are, however, people who don’t.

There are people who don’t want you to get more, get better, get ahead, … get.

When I first met Chuck more than thirty years ago I instantly liked him. How could you not. He was smart, talented, quick, and charming. And he was deep. So deep.

I remember big and little things about Chuck then.

He had a tape recorder rigged to a radio in his car that would record “All Things Considered” each day at half speed so that he could get it all on one tape that he would listen to on his way home.

I supplemented some of my on-air work with work in Chuck’s production department. I learned a ton. It was the first time I ever saw a multi-track reel-to-reel recorder. It made it easy to record a commercial with two voices where each voice was recorded separately and then the producer wove it together into a seamless conversation or pitch.

It wasn’t a happy or an easy time for Chuck and he was spiraling down.

At one very specific point he decided enough was enough – it was time to get well.

I watched him climb out of a hole and I realized up until then I’d only known a shadow of the man he was. He was quite something. He was smarter, more talented, quicker, and more sincerely charming than I’d thought. People like that are often shallow. Not Chuck. He really was deep and caring.

There were specific things that triggered Chuck getting better but it was really his love of two women that gave him the strength to do it. Well, at the time it was one woman and a child – but that child was a big part of why he worked so hard to stay better.

And yet, there were people who didn’t want to see him get better.

I don’t know why.

I don’t know what motivates such people.

Maybe they see it as a rejection of the path they’ve chosen.

One of his friends did things that I still see in my mind to this day to tempt Chuck back. When that didn’t work, he set Chuck up to get fired.

In a way, it wasn’t hard. Chuck had a reputation of getting to work later than he should or not being around all the time when he needed to be.

But that was before.

Now Chuck was better. His work ethic was really strong. He not only brought his A game but he was there to bring it. People no longer had to cover for him. He was better.

But better is a process.

People don’t know where you are in that process. You have to earn their trust again. And while you’re earning that trust back they still see you the way you were and so you’re vulnerable to someone exploiting that.

So Chuck lost his job after being better only a little while.

Such a dangerous position to be in.

It’s so easy to say, “well, that didn’t work.”

Chuck didn’t do that.

We’d meet for coffee and he was sending out letters and resumes.

He was turned down for one job that he thought he was perfect for. They just never had someone who did what he did and they didn’t see the value in it. At a lot of stations, one of the on-air talents had the title of Production Director and jocks would produce a few commercials before or after their air shift. Chuck was a full-time Production Director. He could get more out of his air talent and help support the sales staff in ways that would easily justify his salary.

I remember him telling me that.

“Tell them,” I said.

And he did. He responded to their rejection letter with a letter that thanked them but explained to them that they could benefit from hiring him anyway. It told them what a talented person could bring to that position and then emphasized what Chuck could do in the job.

They hired him.

Why am I an optimist?

I watched Chuck at his lowest, bet on himself and climb out.

There were some who tossed ladders into the hole to help him – he still had to find the ladder and climb up to the next level – but the ladders were there.

There are plenty of others who don’t toss in ladders but they don’t get in the way.

There were others who moved the ladders while he wasn’t looking or reached into the hold and grabbed the ladder while he was half way up and pushed it away from the wall it was leaning on to keep Chuck stuck at his current level.

But he kept climbing.

And even while he was still in the hole himself. Even when he didn’t have enough for himself. He looked at what he had and offered others half.

Chuck took years off of work to write mysteries. Well he was going to write one but he kept writing and ended up with six.

I read them and sent him feedback. He’d rewrite. He’d rewrite again. I don’t know how many other people were reading and sending him feedback. We’d meet for lunch or coffee now and then to talk about his writing. He’d mention the other readers.

We continued to meet – not often enough – once he went back to work in radio. We met while he fought brain cancer. Definitely not often enough.

I think about that a lot too.

I don’t always toss ladders into a hole to help. I don’t always offer half. Sometimes I just don’t get in the way.

I don’t know if that’s enough.

A lot of my friends didn’t vote for president in the last election (please don’t post comments that make this into a political post – it’s not).

My point is that I have berated them for not taking a stand.

One of these two people will be president – you need to take a stand.

One of my friends said that he thinks he has more clarity and impartiality because he didn’t vote.

I raise this because I wonder if that’s me on those times I don’t toss someone a ladder when I can. I’m letting them stay in that hole by not taking any action. I’m trusting that someone else will come along and do the right thing.

You can’t help everybody. But not every ladder is the same. A ladder can be as little as a phone call or a text.

But what if you offer that ladder and your friend doesn’t use it?

That’s up to you.

I saw a wonderful presentation in Berlin and at Yosemite by a woman who gave one example of software that represents the point of view of a depressed person. In each situation it presents all of the options that we have and yet as a person gets more and more depressed it crosses off more of these options with a red line.

The depressed person doesn’t see that this option exists. You as an outsider can see it as clear as day but they can’t ┬ásee that it’s truly available to them. They can’t see any options.

So what if you offer a ladder and your friend doesn’t us it?

That’s up to you.

You didn’t even need to offer the ladder. No judging from me on that. So long as you didn’t hide their ladder, I’m good.

You offered the ladder and have done way more than most.

Sometimes – not always and not when it just means you’ll be stuck in that same hole – sometimes you need to help them understand that they can use that ladder. You have to help them get on it.

At his lowest, Chuck didn’t see the ladders. Then something specific changed.

He saw the ladders.

He saw that he was surrounded by people offering him ladders and telling him to use it.

He still had to get to the ladders. He still had to climb them. As the ground shifted and he found the hole he was in was deeper than he thought, he had to look for things that could be used as ladders.

And once he was out, he knew he could conquer everything.

For so many years Chuck believed he would conquer brain cancer.

I loved that about him.

Those last years of his life weren’t easy but how much harder would they have been if he wasn’t an optimist. And if he didn’t have so many friends with ladders – even ladders he couldn’t use anymore. And if he didn’t still have those two women in his life.

Thank you, Chuck.

Published in: on May 21, 2017 at 1:31 pm  Comments (1)