The Old Man and the Boardroom
about a 3 minute read
With certainty, even though I wasn’t in the room, I know that this story is true – because a very close friend of mine was in the room.
In the early 1980s, in a Toronto boardroom, about two dozen lawyers and bankers were negotiating with a very old and wealthy man to restructure hundreds of millions of dollars of debt. For most of the meeting the old man sat quietly and seemed disinterested. He was frail, slight of build, and was still wearing his trench coat and fedora – probably as a signal that he was ready to leave the room if things didn’t go his way.
Finally, a young banker frustrated by the continual dismissal of proposals rose and asserted, “you have no leverage here and you’re not cooperating – do you have any idea what we can do to you?”
A tense pause went over the room as the heads turned toward the quiet old man. He slowly rose to speak.
“Do to me? Hmmm. That’s a very interesting question, sonny. Let’s think about what you can actually do to me.” He drew up the sleeve of his coat, then jacket, then shirt to reveal a tattooed serial number on his forearm.
“One day, out of nowhere, they came to my home and dragged us all into the street – my wife, my children, my wife’s parents, and my mother. In front of my eyes they shot and killed my wife and our parents and then separated me and my children and took us away. I never saw them again, and eventually found out they were killed later that same day. I was in the camp for three years and they beat me and starved me. Every single day I yearned to stay alive because I did not yet know the fate of my children. And one day it was all over and I had nothing left – no family, no money, no spirit, and I yearned for death.”
“But in 1945, I somehow made my way on a ship to Canada and, after living on the streets for weeks, I found work. In time I found a wife, and we had a boy. My boy fell sick died as a young man, and then my wife fell sick and died. And yet, I worked, and I worked, and I worked to continue to try and live and outrun my pain and find some, any, joy and happiness. I built an incredible fortune, but now I am an old man – a very tired old man, and now a rather amused old man.”
“So … what was your question again? You asked if I knew what you can do to me. I say to you that if there is something you think you can do to me, then just do it.”
He smiled broadly, rose from his chair, and walked out of the room.
I like to think that this incredible old man made a decision long ago to honor the lives of his wife and children – and then made the same decision again years later. He knew that if he left that particular place in time and disaster then ensued, he would be ascribing disaster as the meaning of their lives – and accordingly if he left that particular space and time and success and achievement then ensued, then joy and happiness would be the meaning of their lives. Over the years he was a lover and patron of music and the arts, endowed higher learning, and spent his money on those he found worthy – he poured his energy into his business and to those he valued.
And because he had no downside, no way of losing anything that he hadn’t already lost and lived through, he was liberated in some sense to achieve and grow to a rare level. Not that anyone would want to need such extreme pain to be the motive power of such a protected and liberated mindset, but what an incredible lesson it is to understand that we can lose and go forward and be alright, or more than alright … and that life entails risk and challenges and wouldn’t mean anything at all without those risk and challenges.
What incredible moral courage.