THE SPIRIT IS WILLING I FELT AN EMPTINESS, SO I TRIED BUDDHISM. IT DIDN'T REALLY WORK. YOU HAVE TO SIT FOR HOURS AND THINK OF NOTHING. I NORMALLY GET PAID FOR THAT.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – A few weeks ago I was watching television, attempting to fill the aching spiritual void between dinner and the end of the millennium. I was watching the news, because nothing fills an aching void as well as news, except perhaps for game shows.
On the news I saw a large group of men hollering and hugging each other. There were tears in their eyes, and their hearts seemed to be full to bursting. Amazingly, it was not a group of NFL linebackers celebrating a touchdown as if they'd never got one before. That happens every Sunday. It was a group called the Promise Keepers, and they were giving support to each other in a very manly and spiritual way. Boy, I thought. No aching voids there.
As I wound my watch at bedtime, I lay back and felt the emptiness. I have nothing in my life that generates that kind of spiritual heat, I thought. And so many around me do. Why am I left out? And how can I get some?
I started with Buddhism. I've noticed many influential people are gravitating to it these days. Steven Seagal, the bad actor, was recently named a holy man by the Dalai Lama's people in Los Angeles, enabling him to channel the spirits of ancient departed masters and also raise money. Richard Gere, of course, was in on the whole thing way before anybody else, but now you rarely see an entertainer who isn't hugging some Lama or other at a chic benefit for Tibet hosted by Brad Pitt and his agent. I'd like to be with those people. So I tried to catch the Buddhist wave for a couple of days. It didn't really work. You have to sit for hours and hours and think about nothing. I normally get paid for that. And there are no guarantees such contemplation will pay off in anything more than a certain quiet satisfaction. Me, I'm looking for ecstasy. So I moved on.
For a while, I looked into Science, because there's a new series on PBS with Stephen Hawking that everybody is supposed to get into. I tried to read a book of his once about space and time, and ended up staring out a window, semiconscious, for more than an hour afterward. So I had high hopes. But that, too, failed, when I fell asleep during a discussion of quarks.
Next I tried to worship myself. I've always been a pretty fair hand at this, but I've never gone at it rigorously, the way you do with a genuine creed, with rituals and stuff. I began by eating all the right things, which I hated immediately. Then I started attempting to exercise on a daily basis, because I have heard that it is possible, in the high concentration achieved in the middle of a strenuous workout, to achieve moments of spiritual release, as opposed to a shooting pain in the side. I realized that given my busy schedule, the only time I would have to reach for the inner peace that comes with intense physical activity was at lunch. I thought about that.
I went to lunch instead. Perhaps there my soul would find peace and contentment and, dare I say it, release? It was possible. I went where I generally go, a place where all of the semi-important make themselves known to one another. At every table, a fatuous nabob preened. I sat myself amongst them, and was comfortable. I looked about me. At every table, a bottle bloomed. In each bottle was...fizzy water at $8 the quart. Nobody was drinking alcohol! An entire room full of self-admiring people, all of them sober. Bah. None of us would leave here full of spirits, either figuratively or literally. I had the duck. It beat a sharp stick in the eye, but a numinous experience it wasn't.
I had another thought. Years ago there were those around me--in our sales and manufacturing divisions, primarily--who worshipped Quality. They read about Excellence, and studied the impact of Deming on the Japanese, and they held Quality Improvement Team meetings that looked very much like those of the Promise Keepers. Perhaps there were still some remaining embers of that once-bright fire, secluded ashrams of devotees practicing their arcana in private? I went looking, and I'll be darned. I found them. There were several dozen of them on the 15th floor. All of them were accountants. Each was engaged in zero-basing somebody else's department.
"What are you guys doing around here?" I asked.
"Cutting costs," said their leader. I got out of there fast.
I tried immersing myself in the company. There are people who do. They get a deep, warm glow whenever they enter the building, or use the letterhead, or brandish a business card: It is a mixture of pride and ambition for the common good. I must admit I did achieve a small buzz here, particularly on days the stock went up. But it didn't stay with me very well, possibly because worshipping the company doesn't take up much of the day. There's plenty of time left over to be spiritually bankrupt. I hated that.
After that, I was in free fall. Money. Sex. Red wine. Ray-Bans. I tried them all. They were fun while they lasted. But as a spiritual path? Forget about it.
Then I found something. And of course, it was right at hand. I was riding up in the elevator one afternoon as the leaves were turning, and I ran into Zepp, the head of Management Information Systems.
"How ya doon?" I said to him.
"In the year 2000," he replied, "there will be a disaster like none the earth has ever seen. Computers will crash when they fail to recognize the turn of the clock at midnight! Elevators will tumble! The earth as we know it will grind to a halt!"
"We don't have much time, then," I said.
"We'll be all right if we all work together," he replied, and, grabbing my elbow, he forced me off the elevator at his floor. Down the corridor I found a group of wizened gnomes huddled over a computer monitor. "It is the end of days!" said one with hair in all the wrong places. "But if we all pull together and work very hard, we can make sure this company is in Year 2000 compliance by the turn of the century."
So that's what I'm doing. It feels right. I've got myself a pair of glasses with tape on the bridge, and I'm digging right in. Did you know that all knowledge as we know it could be wiped out unless answers are found and implemented? We've got just two years until all hell breaks loose, and I don't want to be there if we're not in compliance. The alternative is too grim to think about.
By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.