In Praise of Stories

My friend Charles lives on an island in the Caribbean.  He works at a resort taking care of the beach and the pool.  In blistering sun and dressed in a company issued uniform, he labors twelve hours a day, seven days a week for five dollars an hour.  Most of this princely wage was sent to his mother in Haiti until her death a couple of years ago.

What has always struck me most about Charles is a smile that goes from ear to ear and never leaves his face, no matter how hot it gets or how demanding the guests. Charles is a happy man.

Once day he told me the story of his life.  His father left when he was an infant and his mother struggled to raise him in the horrifying poverty that is Haiti.  When he was nineteen, he boarded a 25 foot wooden sloop with 125 others to attempt to reach the island that is now his home. Three miles off shore, they were spotted by the Coast Guard and Charles dove in the shark infested water with others to swim to shore. Not everyone made it. Once ashore, he lived the life of an illegal immigrant, hiding out in the bush and depending on the handouts of others to stay alive.  ”I was the skinniest,” he told me, “so people took pity on me.”  He found what work he could and learned English from watching cartoons on television. His work ethic was so strong that eventually he was hired full time by the resort.

For almost ten years, he has toiled away.  When his mother died, he started saving a little money and was eventually able to purchase a residency permit, so that he no longer had to live in fear of being deported.  He met a girl, got married, and had a child. Even though he still worked for the same minimum wage, he was living a dream.

Charles wanted to buy a house for his new family and he found one in a low income housing development. It didn’t bother him that it was downwind from the dump and was constantly enshrouded in toxic smoke from the burning trash. In partnership with the developer, the local bank was willing to lend him the money to buy it. He brought the loan note to me and asked what I thought. The loan officer told him he had to sign it right away or he would lose his chance. Even a year after the housing crisis has devastated the global economy, it was the classic subprime mortgage.  The interest rate was exorbitant, the payments more than he could afford, and the rate reset in three years. But the house was part of Charles’ dream.

As it happens, I know the developer.  He’s a former Bear Stearns hedge fund manager that built the development as an investment. He has a lavish vacation home on the island that sits on the water, far from the dump and far from his housing development. He uses it a few weeks a year.

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks writes about several studies on what constitutes a successful CEO.  It is not people skills or education, but a dogged persistence to execute and an attention to detail.  They don’t read novels and are rather dull.  Brooks worries that the new administration will impose a revolution in values on the corporate world.  ”That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge,” he writes.

Novels are stories and many cognitive scientists believe that stories are the way our minds naturally work.  Reading novels makes us more attuned to the stories people tell themselves, and help us to appreciate the humanity of others. They broaden our thinking and increase our  awareness of how our actions affect others, both now and in the future.

Perhaps if more CEOs read novels, there would’ve been more forethought and less interest in short term profit.  Perhaps the financial crisis that has damaged all of us, CEOs and minimum wage resort workers alike, could’ve been avoided.  Perhaps then Charles wouldn’t be coerced into a decision that would spell the end of his dream.

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