I once held a contentious, late night conversation with a hard-nosed businessman who at one point got right into my face before hissing venomously, “You’re an idealist, aren’t you?” I confessed. He had me pegged.
He and I couldn’t have been more different, yet each of us represented a facet of the singular American experience. While his was the embodiment of the rags to riches story, mine was an immigrant father who married a poor Southern girl. My parents raised four children who pursued degrees that they used in service to others.
“The chief business of America is business,” said President Coolidge, but in that same speech, he also said, “Americans make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things we want much more. We want peace and honor, and charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists.” (Northeastern University)
There is no better example of business and idealism uniting in America than that found during World War II. We sacrificed for the ideals of freedom and democracy, yet “during the war 17 million new civilian jobs were created, industrial productivity increased by 96%, and corporate profits after taxes doubled. Consumer goods increased despite wartime rationing.” (The American Prospect)
We once again have the opportunity to unite business and idealism to defeat twin threats to our civilization: our deteriorating climate and our declining natural resources. We have to be idealistic enough to believe in a future that we’ll never see while at the same time we must recognize that pragmatism is what puts food on the table today.
The property tax that my rich nemesis paid for his vast landholdings supported the school system where I taught his grandson. His desire for wealth supported my idealism. My idealism provided a service to his family.
He had initiated that late night conversation years ago. His purpose was to convince me that I had made a mistake leaving the classroom to become self-employed. He minced no words in illustrating how unsuited I was for the business world. His words stung because all too often the truth is painful.
Sometimes we need to listen to people (that we’d rather not talk to) tell us things we’d rather not hear. It’s easy to lose sight of things that really matter when our focus is on our struggle to get ahead. The last thing we want to hear is that we made a mistake; our efforts have been counterproductive, and we need to start again. But if that describes our paradigm, then we owe it to ourselves and others to start again.
I listened to the businessman. I went back to the classroom, and now I’m comfortably retired. Dialog is part of our American tradition as is business and idealism. If we forget where we come from, we’ll lose sight of where we’re headed.
Brian E. Moss