(Please note: I didn’t write this blog until I’d made several attempts to communicate directly, and gently, with those concerned, only to get either ignored altogether or a big brush-off). Snarky as it may seem, the larger point, that those who maintain and paint themselves as attempting to create a certain kind of world, should at least make a modicum of an effort to practice what they preach.)
In my recent Socrates Cafe podcast with Barry Kibrick, Emmy Award-winning host of the nonpareil Between the Lines on the power and potential of meaningful conversations, Barry and I discussed the fact that some of those he interviews, and some with whom I’m familiar, who are widely known and revered for their spiritual views and approaches to “being” do not always practice in person what they preach on the air. They have branded themselves well, to great financial benefit for themselves and their coterie, but are not really the real deal, if by that we mean they are not authentically true to what they convey and portray with their public persona (including their on-air public persona).
I am all too aware of this, alas, and am still find myself shaking my head about it, because I’d actually thought in one experience that is still fresh with me I had encountered the real day. It’s like this: I was invited by one of the spiritual/being foks who is widely widely known, for an in-person meeting, only to be brushed off — told that there had been a scheduling snafu — when ventured to visit this person in the Twin Cities, even making an expensive change to my plane flight to accommodate the schedule of this person. I’d brought with me a copy of the new book by this person, who did take a minute to shake my hand and scrawl a hasty signature before depositing me with staff. (I must admit that, while I thought some of the book was ‘authentic,’ I felt ultimately that much too much of it seemed to be writing to the sensibility of this person’s following rather than a reflection of really probing thinking, alas).
It turns out that there was no interest whatsoever in me or my work, except for how it could help them advance their own brand. I was encircled by staff in a stuffy room, and they proceeded to pick my brain for an hour. I shared all my hard-won pearls of wisdom, even as it became clearly they more and more nakedly only aimed to find out how in the world I managed to have hundreds of Socrates Cafes the world over, and over such a long period of time at that, with more groups forming all the time. Turns out they were attempting to start dialogue groups on spirituality and being, to prop up and complement their brand, and they wanted my insights and know-how. They had no interest otherwise in my work, and rather indefatigable efforts to make ours a more livable and lovable world, with profit motive for me always secondary (at best).
But otherwise, they had no interest in me as a person, and in my longtime nonprofit initiatives to establish thoughtful inquiry initiatives with people far and wide, at all. Their ‘gatekeeper’ even was rather hostile to me when I brought up that I hoped one day the host of the program might be interested in talking with me on air (the host had indicated as much). The gatekeeper let down her facade, gave me a harsh ‘no way’ look and gesture — only after they extracted from me all the info they felt was to their advantage — and that was that.
It’s one thing to have a scheduling snafu, another altogether for the host of this program and overseer of this multimillion dollar brand that airs all over the nation through public radio and such to let me know that the planned meeting won’t work out after all. It’s another to exploit my 20-plus years labor of love with my nonprofit initiatives (i receive no salary) to just want to get staff to encircle me and grill me over my tips and experience in ways that will further build their brand. It seems obnoxious and rings false to to me.
But such are the modern-day sophists, maybe especially those raking it in. Their approach to ‘being’ and ‘authenticity’ and ‘spirituality’ all too often has a hollowness to it (or at least, to me — I calls it as I sees it). I’d like to think that at their origins they genuinely were the people they now portray mostly with facades today, but somehow, when the money began to flow with the commensurate vast audience and well-paying speaking invites, it became more about the brand and the moola and less and less about what the original purpose was.
Barry and I had a knowing conversation about this, and I’m still left chewing on it. No one likes to feel used, but I emerged from that meeting from their swank offices (wow) in the Twin Cities with a feeling of great emptiness — less out of sour grapes but from the fact that I’d thought I was going to be encountering the real deal, someone authentically human and genuine, and a kindred spirit with whom I had a kindred sense of mission.
I never received even an apology note, much less an invitation to return, from this host. So I finally wrote back to this host, when I learned I’d be back in the area — and rather than receive a direct reply, my message was shuffled off to an assistant, who made clear to me there was no further interest in me, but that she would “let me know if that changes.” If that changes? That’s about as condescending as it gets. They’d gotten all they wanted from me, had more use for me — good bye and good luck, Christopher.
So now when I see their staff posts and posts from their columnists on Facebook or hear their syndicated program about “being” on air, it will be with an emptiness and disappointment — all the while acknowledging that I’m not totally ‘pure,’ that my public and private personas are different at times, but that I do and have walked the walk for well over twenty years now with Socrates Cafe and kindred initiatives, far more often than not with little financially to show for it, but immeasurably enriched in every other way. But it also inspires me, most of all, inspires me to redouble my own efforts to be the real deal in an age of extraordinary guru-y sophistry, where ultimately, despite all their protestations to the contrary, it’s mostly about the brand and the buck.
Meanwhile, I guess I’ll turn off their program, and instead read Dr. Seuss, who philosophized: “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is youer than you.” So true — and if so, the goal is to be a you that is not only as genuine and authentic as possible, but that has a genuine social conscience and integrity and humility, especially if and as one becomes successful, so that one’s “being” transcends time and clime and the almighty dollar.
Well, what I’ll really do is listen to Barry Kibrick’s programs, again and again. Because Barry is authentic, and when you watch him, this shines through — and in good and bad financial times he approaches his work with equal passion and integrity and purpose. And that you can see in his face, that childlike wonder and fascination. Barry is the real deal. I’ll especially watch him as he engages with some of the guru-y types, and how he still manages, because of his gift of engaging in meaningful conversation, to glean nuggets of wisdom from his guests that might no longer be practiced in any authentic way by his guests, but might nonetheless make life more worth living for those who practice them with a pure heart.
Nothing wrong with making a buck, nothing at all, I stress that. As a dad of two little ones, with the expenses never ending, it sure would be nice not to spend so many sleeping nights wondering and worrying how I’m going to pay the bills. But for those of us claiming to have a mission to bring together people in ways that connect and bridge chasms, how we go about making a buck is, it seems to me, very important. Maybe someday, as unlikely as it seems, I’ll make some serious bucks. Then I guess I’ll be put to the test myself. Hopefully I’ll pass muster.