Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Drinking the Kool-Aid

When, in 2009, I was one year into writing the history of Massachusetts General Hospital and had interviewed several dozen doctors on my way to 110, the VP of Public Affairs turned to me one day and said, “You’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid.” The term has a negative connotation, stemming as it does from the Jonestown massacre of 1978, when hundreds of people drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide brewed up for them by cult leader Jim Jones. But the MGH VP didn’t mean it that way. She was happy about my Kool-Aid habit. She meant that I was feeling empathy with MGH and its people and their mission. I was becoming one of them.

For the past two months, I have been researching and writing another history, a 250-year summary of the oldest boarding school in New England, which happens to be a short drive from my home. Founded in 1763, the institution has been known as Dummer Charity School, Dummer School, Dummer Academy, Governor Dummer Academy, and now (for reasons pretty obvious) The Governor’s Academy. The kids call it Gov’s or refer to it by its former initials, GDA. I came home from a day in the GDA archives this evening and said to my wife, “I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid again.”

I went to another boarding school, and my allegiance to my alma mater, a rival of GDA, may have been a cause of concern for those who hired me to write the history of the Dummer School. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that. It’s not the first time someone has taken the name of GDA in vain.) Today, my direct report at Gov’s asked me about this: Did I feel some higher allegiance to my old school? On the contrary, I told her. Right now, I feel more loyal to my new school. I have been drinking the Kool-Aid again.

I realized that this drinking habit of mine began over 20 years ago when I started Memoirs Unlimited with the idea of helping elderly people write their memoirs. (That business has morphed into a general commission-writing business, where I write just about anything for you if the money’s right. If you see a guy out on the sidewalk with a sign reading “Will Write for Food,” it’s probably me. My advice to you is, honk, wave, smile, but keep driving.)

I discovered early on in the memoirs-ghostwriting trade that if you sit in front of someone long enough and listen—without judgment—you’re likely to find yourself admiring that person, maybe even loving them. It has nothing to do with doing it for money, although the financial benefits undoubtedly reinforce a certain impartiality toward the other person’s story. It is much harder for me to be impartial toward a long story spun by, say, an annoying guy who talks my ear off while we’re both sitting drinking undrinkable coffee in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube. For example. The same can be said about people particularly close to me: it’s hard to listen without judgment, with an open ear and heart. I have too many preconceptions about them. They push all my buttons.

But when I do listen impartially, as I am to the story of GDA and its 250-year-history, it’s all Kool-Aid. My wife said to me over dinner that this habit of mine is “a gift,” and I guess she’s right. To listen to anyone with an open heart, and to love them as a result, is not a skill I can just turn on and off. It’s something that “happens,” a gift, a grace, an opening to Something Else. 

Maybe it is because people pay me that I do it, but I’m not so sure about that. They might as well put a gun to my head, as the Misfit does to the old lady in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” If they did so, I would be just like her, who “would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Short of that, I will have to beg to receive this gift more consistently, in my daily life. And give thanks for the gift when it arrives.

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