Wednesday, May 1, 2013

reward and recognition

“The one thing needful for a person is to become-
to be, at last, and to die in the fullness of their being...
and happy is he who puts forth to see, with treasure freighted.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Citadelle, ch.38

understanding accolades

Many of us earn some measure of recognition, but many more of us watch the awarding of others. Competitions and rewards accompany our days for our earliest interactions with this world. From elementary school, to summer camps, workplaces, and community life, alluring merits and prizes abound. Generally, fame and notoriety, in their varied manifestations, find recipients among those with the highest grade-point averages, the most sales, the lowest earned-run-average, and the largest pumpkin at the fair. These are the more statistical awards. Then there are the more subjective accolades, such as the best-tasting apple pies, beauty contests, grammys, oscars, and the Most Valuable Player. While we can fairly well figure out the necessary attributes for the gaining of an award, we are also left to marvel at the more subjective awarding criteria. Why does fortune smile on one, and not another? I’ve wondered at such strange examples of selectivity, both as frequent witness and as infrequent recipient. Singling-out and exclusion are two sides of the same question.

When I look at the scattered commendations I’ve received over the years, reminders of herculean work efforts and those fleeting moments of bestowal come to thought. Then they dissolve. And then I marvel at how so many others that expend significantly less effort than I do, receive exponentially greater fortunes and rewards. It is easy to be left to wonder whether less done means greater rewards. Nothing, then, must be worth inestimable fortunes! Postmodern culture, expressed by its peculiar language, finds this context in the application of win. “With this product, everybody wins.” Using such-and-such strategy, the company wins.” “As we follow this course, goodness wins.” Has somebody actually won something? Who lost? Is there a second prize? How about a victory banner? Surely, winning is advisable over being defeated. In attempting to distinguish between the two apparently contesting sides, it becomes necessary to articulate the meanings of reward and recognition.

halls of fame

If recognition belongs to the finite moment, questions about enduring value come to mind. We may consider how many hard-driven and decorated athletes pawn off their medals and rings for the artifactual worth and precious metal content. Has the value of the award as an object outpaced that of the victory itself? Perhaps time depreciates accolades, especially as contexts disconnect and evaporate. Yet tokens and statements of recognition are somehow as dear to us as they are ephemeral. Such memorials are fleeting, and persistent will is needed to keep recognition in active memory. It may be that the inherent ephemeral nature within rewards is what fuels the human craving for acknowledgment. For each of us, there will be a scale of importance, as it concerns awards and those who issue them. For many, a parent’s or an employer’s tangible approval has greater worth than gold watches or sums of money. Beyond amnesic popular culture, each one of us can determine the awards that endure.

As recipients have their definitions, so do those who bestow recognition. In a broad sense, most rewards are used as incentives. If a quota is met, or some goal achieved, a reward may follow. It’s the old carrot-and-stick idea we knew in grade school, and it seems to keep the wheels of progress in perpetual motion. By parallel contrast, the less-productive have cause to fear. But at all hands, rewards are prominently at the center. “If you do this, you may very well qualify to get that,” but there are no promises. Alas, hard work and success are not inextricable.

Consumer culture propagates its own definitions of rewards. Even plastic charge cards named after precious metals. Premiums and property are promised, but earning the elusive requisite points demands greater cost than the monetary value of the rewards themselves. It has become an exception to find businesses without affinity programmes and purchase cards, promoted as customer benefits, yet surely advantageous as marketing and demographic devices. “Loss-lead” is the term used when an item is priced unusually low, for the purpose of drawing the attention of customers to engage and buy more. Every coffeehouse in town wants me to punch a card; it’s as though I’m continually on the job. The tenth cup free, after paying for nine, continues to look like a good deal for my loyalty.

What are the enduring awards? Which ones are worth the invested time, energy, and expense? Looking at collected diplomas, certificates, honor pins, trophies, and reference letters, I see how quickly they fall silent. Their respective moments move farther away from the present, with each day that passes. The human hunger for applause demands new tokens in constant succession. But do such ephemeral items really advance us through life? Recently, I was asked to organize the archives and artifacts of a journalist who had passed away several years ago. Unpacking the cardboard boxes, I found certificates and medals among the stacks of papers. Examining such personal documents as passports and correspondence, I wondered about this man’s attachments to these things, and whether their value to him had changed through the years. Walking by a trophy store the other day, all the pedestal-mounted memorials, plaques, glass objects, and ribbons grouped together on display suddenly looked like expendable merchandise. In theory, anyone can have a personalized award made for any reason at all. “First-Place in the Squandered-Talent Show, awarded to...,” and be sure to enter that middle-name, to make it look official. Looking away from the veneered trophies, a good and effective effort should stand on its own without material recognition.

status update

A greater work than any career, that may or may not exist, is a conversion of mind that conscientiously eschews reward. It is a death to oneself, and quite contrary to so many of this culture’s motivating forces. What liberation awaits, after letting competitions barrel down their divergent highways, while choosing country roads instead? Where was that mechanical racetrack rabbit going, anyway? But, alas, most of us must compete for better employment, and must navigate the narrow channel that passes between serpentine cleverness and dovelike innocence.

Lately, I’ve been referring to myself as “the prodigal’s brother.” As in the famous biblical parable, contrasting the hard-crashing and dramatically-repenting prodigal, is his brother: the one who loyally stayed, responsibly working in his backwater town. The brother watches the returning prodigal’s festivities with incredulity, unable to comprehend his own uncelebrity. Readers are left to wonder if he ever learned to recognize the good in his perseverance, and if his steadfastness was ever rewarded to his satisfaction. In his philosophic Citadelle, Saint-Exupéry wrote, “Strive to break the bonds that tie you to worldly goods- trade yourself in exchange for something greater than yourself.” When considering disentangling from the chasing of rewards and notoriety, I realize my own vulnerability to such pursuits. Can an ambitious soul in this world be dissuaded from the driving desire for recognition and material comfort?

It is a test of faith, rather than a challenge of belief. With a solidly bare faith, it would be a matter of assuredly looking forward without bitter strain to better days and prospects. Belief in God’s presence is a far easier reckoning. The oft-used figure of speech about “the left hand not knowing what the right hand does,” in its origin was a compliment wrapped in a reproach. Jesus used this imagery to illustrate the virtue of not broadcasting our charitable works, not trumpeting what we think our virtues are. Choose well, but do so in quiet confidence. In the fluidity and fickleness of time, the rewards of status seekers are temporal at best. Indeed, many among us have known of such subtle truths for a long time, easily agreeing and sympathizing with the rarified road of covert holiness. But the unspoken underside asks us to cultivate a disinterested regard for public recognition. Once more, belief prompts agreement, but trusting faith holds the soul to realigning and developing an unreluctant understanding of reward and recognition.

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