The Indispensable Ones

After twenty years of teaching, I have discovered that students are afraid of two things: failure and imperfection. So, I remind them every chance I get that they will fail and are imperfect. It’s part of my classroom charm. I also tell them that I will help them with the former if they keep asking me things that are spelled out in the syllabus. In bold type, no less.

But failure and imperfection are as much a part of the human condition as hope and love. In fact, these four characteristics and the varied ways they interact define what we are as human beings.

In his poem, “In Praise of Fighters” (1930), Bertolt Brecht, the German poet and playwright, writes : “There are men who struggle for a day and they are good/There are men who struggle for a year and they are better/There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still/But there are those who struggle all their lives: these are the indispensable ones.”

It’s the indispensable ones you want to be around, learn from, and maybe even become, as painful as that sounds. And it is painful. Nobody wants to spend a lifetime struggling, not financially, emotionally, physically, or any other way. It’s not fun and doesn’t get you a seat at the cool table in the cafeteria. It may not even get you lunch.

What makes these people indispensable? And indispensable to whom? I can think of two reasons.

First, it is an incontrovertible fact of life that the olive wreath goes not to the fastest, biggest, richest, or even smartest. It goes to the one who can adapt to an unpredictable and ever-changing environment. If you can adapt to the circumstances around you, no matter how unfamiliar and strange, you will survive. You may not like the new reality and perhaps even long for the past–many people do–but at least you will not be eaten by predators. This assumes, of course, that you struggle not because you are an emotional wreck or lazy but creative and open to risk.

Second, this adaptation or reinvention takes place not once or twice but many times. And soon you discover that reinventing yourself time after time changes you over time. You are not the same person. This change is not merely a makeover, as if that would fool the predators, but a transformation of identity. It is akin to a religious experience. It makes you tougher on one hand but more compassionate and wiser on the other.

The question about being indispensable to whom is important, especially for business students, who have been brainwashed into believing that in an organization no one is indispensable. Everyone stands at the edge of the precipice. But this is stupidity and obtuseness disguised as corporate wisdom, often dispensed in a business seminar. It belongs to the same, cruel logic of efficiency that turned people first into employees and then “human resources.”

In reality, the indispensable ones are indispensable to all of us, because in their struggling they give us our humanity. How else can the soul be revealed except through struggle, and what is more important in life than soul? St. Paul writes about being imprisoned, beaten, whipped, stoned, nearly drowned, hungry, thirsty, and deprived of sleep (2 Cor 11:22-27). Yet, his message came through. He was indispensable.

In my own life, I have had all kinds of experiences. Some have been positive, others not. I have been divorced, homeless, unemployed, deathly ill, penniless, and alone in foreign lands. I like to think of these struggles as having made me tougher but more compassionate. This is not to romanticize suffering but to tell those who would control or anesthetize it that they’re making a big mistake.

Besides, it is not for the secure or tenured to decide what is indispensable and what isn’t.

They haven’t earned that privilege.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: I would like to live long enough to be a child prodigy.

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