Words matter. Saying – and hearing – the right thing at the right time can make all the difference in the world.
A contrite Saint Augustine famously heard a child chanting "tolle, lege" – take up and read – as a call from God to leave his concupiscence behind and become a Christian. So, too, was Paul the Apostle converted on the road to Damascus.
I had a moment like that some years back. Mine wasn’t a message from God, but from my good friend Frank, a former law partner of mine. Nor did the words Frank spoke put me on the path to sanctity. I treasure them nevertheless, both for their phrasing, which was sublime, and their tendency to keep me from getting wrapped around the axle simply by bearing them in mind.
A decade or so my senior, Frank looked out for me when I was a younger lawyer in my firm. Though Frank, an African-American man raised in the South, had life experiences different from my own growing up, I always felt a certain kinship with him. He was like a cool older brother who didn’t mind you listening to his Zeppelin albums.
To meet Frank was to know instantly that his father had shaped his character, forging it with equal parts love and discipline. It was almost regal how Frank carried and carries himself. Head high and shoulders back, always walking with a purpose, he’s a man who senses the obligation to uphold his family name, but bears it joyously. Simply put, we all need mentors, and Frank was one of mine.
One day I was getting worked up over something that at the time seemed significant. Today, I don’t even recall what the issue was, but it troubled me greatly then, and as a young man in a hurry, failure was not an option. I brought my troubles to Frank for his counsel and I’ll never forget what he said.
“You know, Mike,” Frank began, “most people take a shower after their workday is over, not before it.” His mouth curled into the sly smile of a country doctor confident in the wisdom of his home remedy. And rightly so, for the medicine was perfect.
There we were, two guys blessed with great careers and greater families, sitting in comfortable chairs in a climate-controlled office with commanding views of our city of Charlotte. We both were wearing cufflinks, for heaven’s sake!
We weren’t freezing in foxholes, putting our lives on the line to patrol our community or exhausted after pulling double shifts of manual labor to feed our families. We were two lawyers discussing a problem that was eminently solvable. I had forgotten that context. Frank hadn’t.
That’s why I’m proud I cannot remember the particular details that brought me into Frank’s office that day. The problem was so trivial, his wry, perfectly phrased observation pulverized it into forgettable dust in the ash heap of history. When I sense myself starting to forget the First World nature of a problem, I think of Frank’s “shower counsel," and I smile.
It’s no tolle, lege but then again, I’m no St. Augustine.