Awash in Naiveté
“One can’t understand everything at once, we can’t begin with perfection all at once…And if we understand things too quickly, perhaps we shan’t understand them thoroughly.”
— The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Aiming to portray “a truly beautiful soul,” Dostoevsky wrote Prince Myshkin as a probing character, one whose feeble appearance creates the impression that he is incapable of caring for himself, but who is in fact unassumingly percipient, heedful of life as it occurs around him and wiser than his mien. The Idiot is a philosophical odyssey that begins as Myshkin returns to “Petersburg,” shrouded in derision and bemusement following several years away. No one knows exactly why he left, nor why he has returned. But his presence stirs curiosity and his compromised physicality arouses doubts. Myshkin’s entire journey to the novel’s conclusion is suffused with condescension, scorn and ultimately pity. Awash in naiveté, Myshkin closes the odyssey having exposed hidden truths about himself, and having not so innocently laid bare the insecurities and raw intentions of his fellow voyageurs. In the end, each of them was naïve and each was navigating his own voyage.
Sometimes the doing is the journey.
I was hired for my first non-farming job at age fifteen. Before, I had spent the previous three years working summers for the Bennett Brothers Co-op, a farming business owned and operated by my paternal grandfather, his brothers and one of his sons. It was hard work that paid an occasional wage and that caused me to remain innocent about life off the family farm and outside of the family acreage. This new job was with a small retail chain fittingly named “Bargain Town USA” because it sold a variety of retail items that were cheaply made and generally affordable. I was employed as the stock person. I maintained the order and cleanliness of the large room that stored the unshelved stock, I replenished empty shelves with that stored merchandise, and I unloaded the trailer that delivered new merchandise to the store, sometimes alone but usually along with the driver who delivered the freight. I was responsible for checking the bill of lading against the merchandise that arrived, and was taught to never unload a truck if the security seal at the opening of the trailer was broken. I was no longer on the farm, and it was at once thrilling and overwhelming!
It took two weeks to get up to pace, but my first non-relative boss was patient: with my errors, with my occasional disorientation and with my gullibility. I could be persuaded to do anyone’s work, even if it slowed the pace at which I met my own responsibilities. If a sales associate had been tasked with re-stocking certain merchandise in her area of the store, she might come to me in the stock room and ask that I “help” her re-stock the shelves by bringing the merchandise to the sales floor. Once on the sales floor, she would be too busy with a customer to place the merchandise, and would ask that I begin without her. I often finished before she returned. This pattern repeated itself a number of times before my boss took me aside to ask why my stock room duties were not being met at the expected pace. He suggested I spend less time on the sales floor and more in the stock room, where I was hired to work. It was good advice that my innocence flouted. After all, Mrs. Horn was older and needed my help. How could she possibly stock those shelves by herself? (It would be months before it occurred to me that she must have stocked them on her own before I was hired.) I worked doubly hard helping others with their responsibilities on the sales floor and meeting my own obligations in the stock room. It was clear that I was naïve, and the sharks sensed the chum in the water.
My boss himself eventually piled on additional responsibilities. Suddenly, I was the stock person, substitute sales associate, substitute cashier, and one of the associates who stayed behind to help close the store. I was also still in high school and was expected by my parents to earn high marks. My life was moving at a dizzying pace, my candle was being burned at both ends.
One day, near the end of my tenure at Bargain Town, my boss asked that I follow him to the stock room. Insecure, I assumed that I had put a foot wrong and was being returned to my original duties. Instead, I was being asked to help him remove boxes from the stock room so that the entrances and approaches would be clear and the store would be prepared for the next morning’s delivery. I felt honored to assist him. He even showed me how he sometimes climbed into the garbage dumpster to pack the boxes so that they all fit. At this I hesitated, but only briefly. He then said that he needed to finish business at the front of the store, but would return in time of for us to get the task done. He helped me climb into the dumpster before he left. It was only then that I realized my innocence had been a weapon formed against me, and that I had just surrendered to my basest defeat. There I was, embarrassed and defeated, jumping up and down “packing” the dumpster, like an idiot.
This and subsequent other requests were the indignities that laid bare my naiveté, but also awakened me to the truth. The truth was that all the tasks I took on at Bargain Town, including the humiliation of jumping in that dumpster, collectively informed my journey. They taught the farm hand that he could do more than farm and the gullible teenager that not everyone he met would be well-intentioned.
I took those lessons, and all the experience I acquired taking on tasks outside of my job description, to a new job at a video rental store. I surprised my first boss with a letter of resignation. My journey at Bargain Town had come to an end. My new boss –a woman who was ebullient, charismatic but practical– taught me that “packing” dumpsters was illegal and a liability to the store. Based on my experience, she started me at the register as a video rental associate, and informed me that no one would be asked to undertake any work that she herself would not perform.
Like so, at Movie Gallery, I began the journey of learning to lead by example.