“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong.” – N. R. Narayana Murthy.
Growth is often painful, as I have personally experienced. To walk away from life with the satisfaction of having given it our best shot, we must first understand what our ‘all’ looks like. The wise man Yusuf once told me that one’s best can keep improving, using the example of Olympic long-distance runners. But he didn’t elaborate on how; I had to find out on my own through many trials and much error, as many of us must.
Yusuf’s story was one of grace and the most unique serendipity, which he revealed only when I offered him chocolate for the first time. “No, thank you, I hate chocolate.” He had never used that word before, “hate.” As a thirteen-year-old, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could hate chocolate. I was intrigued…”I grew up on a cocoa farm in Nigeria, you see. The smell of it was always in the air that I could smell it even now.” He then narrated how the little boy from the cocoa farm went to the storied halls of a university in Canada as a professor, to the decisive chambers of The World Bank, and subsequently, to the position of Director General of an international development finance institution where country members give millions upon millions in financing programs aimed at fostering socio-economic progress in developing countries.
Wise man Yusuf was unlike anyone else in the high echelons of international decision-making. His esteemed ancestral roots were seared into his face, four lines on each side if memory serves me right. He carried those lines with honor and a demeanor characterized by humility, dignified calmness, and patience. Each word he spoke was measured, and each statement was cut to fit. If we could only look in the mirror and be reminded of where we come from and the people who carried us on their shoulders until we become strong enough to hold our own footsteps into the world, asserting, “I am.”
For as long as wise man Yusuf was in our lives, if he spoke, I hung on every word as if wanting to possess and preserve each in memory, turning it over and under to understand what truth he was trying to impart. Truth, as I can now appreciate, is rare. When we met for the last time in my thirties in Abu Dhabi, where he attended a financing meeting, I could sense he had reached a saturation point. He irritably closed the project proposal I offered him while driving to another meeting in Dubai. “I’ll be retiring in a few months,” he said. Still reflecting on his reaction starkly out of character, it didn’t seem like the right time to ask how reaching that milestone affected him and, more so, the realization of it. He then disappeared entirely from public life – as well as mine.
Ironically, he wanted to buy a suitcase after his meeting in Dubai ended. We finally shortlisted two that he felt fit for purpose. He then weighed the opportunity cost of each one for over half an hour. He invited me to his meticulous examination of them from various angles and the discussion on pros and cons. As a sniper-shopper, I must admit to my embarrassment; I was getting impatient. I couldn’t see how A was so different from B? No doubt, the suitcase to which you commit your last departure from public life is a decision one must make at leisure rather than haste.
I hadn’t thought about wise man Yusuf for years until I started writing this piece beginning with the topic of growth. Not because he was forgotten but because growth, at its most painful, can require an invested commitment to self.
His story had evidently left such an impression on me. Why did I start what is shaping into one installment of a series on growth and finding a new path through depression with Yusuf’s wisdom? For two reasons, nothing at all in how he interacted in the world would indicate that he led a powerful organization with some of the wealthiest nations in the region as member countries. Second, he never aimed for success. He only sought to personify his definition of it, but it claimed him. It knocked on his door time and time again as if it was fated. One of the interviews for a role that ushered in even greater success in his life took place in his car when he picked up two strangers heading to the airport to keep them from the pouring rain. Unbeknownst to him, they were the interviewers he tried to avoid for a position he was sure to uphold.
Dr. Yusuf Sayyed, wherever you are today, thank you for having shared your life. It’s only wise men who, if they could pray only for one thing, would pray for wisdom.
“The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” Khalil Gibran
Art for Muriel’s Blog by Iraqi Artist Mariam Beirouty