Dear Drama Observers,
I was doing a seminar out on the road this week, and let’s just say that things didn’t go quite according to plan (weather cancellations, failed book deliveries, etc.). I got about 75% of my letter for this week written but was never able to finish it. So, rather than sending you a three-fourths complete letter leaving you wondering what the other 25% would’ve said, I’m re-sending you 100% of something I posted a little over 2 years ago.
I’d like to say a few things about the tension between winning and principles… but first let me tell you a story. As Larry King once said before marrying his seventh wife, I’ll try to keep this short.
My dad dropped me off at college one Sunday night to begin my freshman year. Classes didn’t start until the following week, but I arrived early to get acclimated and attend all the required orientation meetings. Other freshmen got there early for an additional reason—to go through rush.
I hadn’t planned on joining a fraternity—I thought all that stuff was rather superficial and silly. But truth be known, I didn’t think I was cool enough to get into a fraternity. I was not very high up on my high school’s popularity food chain and couldn’t imagine why any self-respecting college fraternity would extend a bid to me. So, my decision to forgo rush was driven almost entirely by humiliation avoidance.
I ran into a high school friend that evening who asked me if I’d be attending the nightly rush parties and I told him I wouldn’t. He said, “Why don’t you come with me; they’ll have free food.” I said, “Okay.” (Note: I was not a person of unshakable commitments).
In a miracle of biblical proportions, I actually got a bid. I won’t tell you the real-life name of my fraternity so as to protect the innocent (or guilty), but for the purposes of my story here, let’s just call them the Fly Delta Jets. I had just become a Fly Delt pledge.
The Fly Delts were, for the most part, viewed favorably on campus and had a reputation of being good guys. In fact, every pledge had to memorize something called The Good Guy Creed (not the actual name). Laid out in the creed were standards of conduct to which all Fly Delts should aspire. As pledges, we were required to light a match and recite the creed before the match burned down to our fingers. Needless to say, we pledges were motivated to commit that creed to heart… and say it quickly!
The thinking was that the creed would set us apart from other fraternities who prided themselves on debauchery and licentiousness. Chief among them were the Tappa Kegga Brews (again, not the actual name). The Tappa Keg house was widely known as a den of decadence and they actively promoted this public persona. We Fly Delts looked down our snooty noses at those depraved Tappa Kegs. But then, they didn’t like us either, probably due to our air of moral superiority.
Over time, our two frats fell into a Game of Thrones-like rivalry, each vying for control of the Greek hilltop. We did nasty things to each other—like the time they spray-painted “Goose Roost” on the side of our house in the middle of the night—and we publicly disparaged each other. You might say that our competition didn’t exactly bring out the better angels of our nature.
Here’s what I observed during my four years of animal house, I mean, fraternity involvement. The Good Guy Creed we worked so hard to memorize as freshmen became less and less influential as we approached our senior years. We cared less about being good guys and more about sticking it to the Tappa Kegs, despite the damage being done to our own reputations. We cared more about winning than we did about our principles. To put it another way, we had become less credal and more tribal.
This is what happens to principles when the tribal desire to win at all costs becomes paramount. Sure, we probably won more battles with the Tappa Kegs than we lost but, in the process, we became indistinguishable from our opponents. No one ever advances their principles by forfeiting them to “win.” When that happens, people will view your principles as a bunch of hooey. I’m sad to say, that’s what happened to ours.
I hate to end on such a downer so let me lift it up a bit. During Hell Week (that marvelous time in which active members get to act out their sadistic fantasies), we pledges were put through a physical and emotional wringer. Hell Week was sort of a military boot camp wannabe where we ran a lot, did push-ups a lot, cleaned a lot, and slept very little. In fact, in five days we probably slept four to five hours. Yeah, I know… it was a different era.
One of the “actives” approached the Pledge Trainer one afternoon and asked if he could borrow me and another pledge brother for about three hours. “I’ve got some work I need them to do,” he said. When we got up to his room, we asked him to show us what he needed and he said, “I need you guys to each take a bunk and get some sleep. I’ll be back in three hours.” I got the most appreciated three-hour nap of my life.
Unlike his tribal brothers, this active member lived out the Good Guy Creed. Now to be fair, I think he was a good guy before he ever read the creed. But to him, they weren’t just words to recite but actions to implement. He won, not by forfeiting his principles for some momentary illusion of victory, but by keeping them.
We tend to remember that which stands out. I’ve forgotten most all of the sophomoric things we did to the Tappa Kegs. But I remember well what this active member did for me that afternoon during Hell Week.
Wins are fleeting; principles are enduring.
Till next week.