All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 1996

The Courage to Try

The Concept of Personal Responsibility Has Lost Its Luster

Mr. Orlowski is a writer and small-business owner in New Hampshire.

Every so often, a seemingly mundane event occurs in our lives that ends up affecting us in a profound manner. I’m not speaking of a major life change, like a death or serious illness, but of something that could easily be overlooked or quickly forgotten. Allow me to share one such experience.

Late last fall I was preparing an article for a local business journal; it was a typical update on how businesses were preparing for the upcoming Christmas selling season. While interviewing the store manager of one establishment, the manager had to excuse himself to talk with someone waiting at the counter. A young man and woman were there to speak with him about temporary Christmas-time employment. The young man, probably in his early twenties, was a bit nervous, though his look was serious and intent. He was sharply dressed (probably overdressed for the situation), in what was likely his best suit. He handed the manager his application, which, from a quick glance, appeared to be carefully filled out. He stood before the manager, straight and erect, listening attentively, but unsure just how to respond.

The young man was afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. The woman with him explained that she was his sister, and had driven him over to return the application. The manager, who seemed a bit awkward with the situation, politely explained the hiring process, and asked the young man if he had any questions. Looking down, he nervously shook his head “no.” The manager then thanked him for stopping in, and said he would be making a decision on his extra Christmas help in a few days. The young woman thanked him, and the pair left the store. The manager returned to our interview, which we completed, though my thoughts were no longer on the subject of my visit.

As I watched the young man leave the store, I knew he would never get the job. After all, this was a retail store where good communication skills were vital, and I don’t believe the young man spoke once during the entire time he was in the store. Still, I was overwhelmed by the courage that young man exhibited by being there. I don’t know if this was his first attempt at finding a job, or his hundredth. Either way, he was determined to put his best effort forward and try for a job most of us would consider trivial. I thought about the time and care he put into dressing just right for that four-minute interview—the effort he must have put into filling out that application, to make it as neat and attractive as possible. As a former retail store manager myself, I knew that the typical applicant wouldn’t put forth one-tenth of the effort that he obviously had. Yet it wouldn’t be enough.

I wanted to ask the manager if there wasn’t something he could find for the young man to do—maybe rotating stock, or helping keep the store neat during the busy Christmas rush. I decided against this; it just wasn’t my place to do so. I quickly tried to think of another job opportunity I’d heard of before they drove away. But they had probably scoured the papers for every possibility already. I thought about how getting this job was likely the young man’s most important goal, and about the disappointment he would experience when he was rejected. When the news came, his sister would probably put her arm around his shoulders, smile, and say “Come on, let’s try again. I’ll drive you.”

The Clamor for Entitlements

We live in a time in our nation when citizens feel “entitled” to whatever they feel their needs are. When groups shout and stammer about how they “deserve” something from the society as a whole. When huge protests are organized among the “deserving” if government even suggests a slowdown in the amount of money to be redistributed to them. When politicians can garner votes by pitting group against group, and creating class envy. When the government’s taking from one American to give to another is considered fair and righteous. If an individual disagrees with this policy, and wishes to keep more of what he produces and earns, he is branded as greedy.

The young man I encountered on that late autumn day wasn’t content to play by those rules. Although he, if anyone, was in need of society’s assistance, he and his family decided that his best option was to try and help himself by being a productive, working citizen. And even though he probably had been rejected more times than any of us will ever be, he was putting forth his best effort in trying again. I’d like to think that his perseverance will pay off, that goodness will prevail and he will find his dream job. I know that in the real world, however, that may not happen, particularly because of minimum-wage laws and other labor regulations that discourage prospective employers from hiring such workers.

That young man touched my life for a mere five minutes, but I doubt I will ever forget him. Every time I see some group ranting in front of a congressional committee about how they deserve more taxpayer dollars, I’ll think of him. Every time I hear some able-bodied person complain on camera about how unfair life is, and how government should come to the rescue, I’ll think of him. Every time I get depressed about how tough things are for me, and how I might as well quit trying, I’ll think of him. I’ll always remember the grace with which he took on this task—a simple task to most of us, but one of Herculean proportions to him.

The concept of personal responsibility has lost its luster in recent years. Yet just when it seems that dodging what is right for what is convenient is the universally accepted premise, a simple, profound example of what is right can surface to rekindle our faith.

I have a new hero now. My heroes have never been celebrities or sports figures or politicians. They are simple, hard-working, honorable people, who, striving against life’s obstacles, don’t always win, but keep up the struggle. People who after succeeding or failing can look in the mirror and see someone who always tried to do the honorable thing. People who, like this young man, have life’s odds stacked heavily against them, and struggle to achieve a goal most people take for granted. Courage and honor are the traits real heroes are made of. And courage, friends, takes many forms; it can be found in the least likely places when we least expect it, but need it most.