February 16, 2015

Sail the Five Cs, steer through the storms

Sorry, Persian and Arabian. It's nothing personal.

At speech camp, they taught us to illustrate our points using The Five Cs:

1.   Character and context
2.   Conflict
3.   Choice
4.   Consequence
5.   Conclusion

For example,

1.   It's 1992, and President George H.W. Bush is running for re-election against Governor Bill Clinton.
2.   Many undecided voters think Bush is old and out-of-touch, and he's trailing behind Clinton, the good-ol'-boy from Arkansas.
3.   Bush decides to stage a campaign visit to a supermarket so that voters will see him as an ordinary man. All goes well as he walks through the store, greeting employees. When shaking hands with the cashiers, however...
4.   Bush marvels at the red laser-beam barcode scanners, and he praises American innovation. He doesn't know that barcode scanners have been ubiquitous at checkout counters for at least 10 years. To undecided voters, the gaff confirms that President Bush is out-of-touch, and he falls further behind in the polls. Clinton will become the next president of the United States.

"And what is this electronic abacus you have here?"

5.   Don't try to be someone you're not; prepare yourself before facing a challenge outside your comfort zone; go to a grocery store at least once a decade.

The fifth C is the take-home lesson and not a part of the story, but the first four Cs are essential. Imagine this story without the second and third Cs.

1.   It's 1992, and President George H.W. Bush is running for re-election against Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
4.   Undecided voters think that President Bush is old and out-of-touch, and he's behind in the polls. Clinton becomes the next president of the United States.
5.   Well, you can't win 'em all.

Lacking conflict and choice, this is just a summary of events punctuated with a sigh. Anyone hearing this "story" will probably punctuate it themselves with a yawn.

If we face it, conflict gifts us with choice, and that gives life to our own stories. Conflict sounds scary, but talking around it makes for a life full of sighs and yawns.

Conflict *gasp!* challenges past choices. Consider mid-19th-century Siam. Before the king from The King and I supposedly danced and romanced with his British governess, he courted the British Empire.

I think this is way more romantic.

King Mongkut's predecessor, Rama III, spent his reign set against the West and its rising influence in the lands around his kingdom. On his deathbed, he warned: "There will be no more wars with Vietnam and Burma. We will have them only with the West." When Mongkut acceded to the throne, the type of neighboring conflicts which plagued his paranoid-but-prescient predecessor had not died down.

The Taiping Rebellion was spreading across southern China; Hong Kong was now a British colony and in a lull between opium wars; The US had sailed warships into Tokyo and demanded Japan open for business after two centuries of seclusion.

Mongkut lifted the ban on opium in 1852 and signed a monumental treaty with the British in 1855. He stopped avoiding change like the king before him had. He recognized the moment of conflict around him and chose to do something new. Historiography has judged this variously, but there were no wars with the West in the way Rama III predicted. Siam was no-one's colony.

For those who aren't kings or emperors, any choice is still empowering. Take, for instance, the best-dressed of Brazzaville: the sapeurs, clept after La Sape: "Society for the Advancement of Elegant People".

Hector Madiavilla/Splash/Corbis
"The white man may have invented clothes, but we turned it into an art." – 'King' Kester Emeneya

The Republic of the Congo is war-torn and depressed, but citizens put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. If you were getting up to earn your $10 for the day, which pants would you choose to put on? Armani or Gucci? I'd wear Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX Champions sweatpants, but I don't face the challenge of daily life in Republic of Congo, and that's not ironic fashion in Brazzaville. One sapeur explains: "Even if I don't have money in my pocket, I only need to wear a suit and tie to feel really at ease." These men choose to pay an arm and a leg to dress like they do, figuratively, and their days are brighter.

When you face conflict and choose a way to deal with it, the consequences of that choice comprise the lived experience that supports your conclusions. The stories we tell ourselves form our future, and there's no life in a story with just three C's.

The assumption behind all the action, the first C, is that one character enacts a story, but we're never the only character. Although we all have to answer for our own actions, we don't have to enter conflicts alone, and we don't have to make decisions by ourselves. Reckoning your actions with who's above you and who's beside you, however, is not something they teach you at speech camp.