Never stop swinging

I don't know the exact number of speeches I've listened to in my life, but it's a lot.

I don't know the exact number of speeches I've listened to in my life, but it's a lot. Unfortunately, there are very few I can actually remember. And there are even fewer that moved me in a deep way.

Sometimes, I'll recall a specific point, joke, or visual, but I can count on my fingers the number of speeches I've heard that are worth retelling.

There is, however, one in particular I often repeat, partly because it was a great presentation that someone in communications can certainly appreciate, but also because it has proven remarkably relevant to the difficult times we find ourselves in and that life inevitably serves up.

It was a sermon delivered by a Hasidic rabbi at a Bar Mitzvah I attended in Chicago. One thing to understand about Hasidic services is that there is never a shortage of rabbis attending, and no shortage of sermons delivered. Moreover, each sermon is peppered with phrases in Yiddish and Hebrew, so they are difficult to follow. As such, it's relatively easy to nod off or daydream during the delivery.

On this cold morning in the Windy City, a rabbi with a great beard began to tell a story of a wise man who was atoning for his sins through the ancient ritual called Kapporos, in which you swing a live chicken above your head and recite prayers of atonement. The prayers ask that your sins be transferred to the chicken so that you can escape divine punishment. Pretty straightforward.

The sermon went like this: "So it happened once that a very righteous and wise man was praying to the Almighty for forgiveness. He was swinging a live chicken and saying his prayers, when suddenly the chicken did its business on the wise man's head."

I suddenly sat up in my chair and asked my son, "Did he just say the chicken pooped on the wise man's head?"

My son nodded in confirmation. Now I was hooked and the sermon continued.

"So what did the wise man do after the chicken did his business?" asked the rabbi. "Did he stop swinging the chicken? No. He kept swinging. Do you know why? Because you don't stop moving forward if bad things happen. You keep going. You keep on your path. Bad things will happen in life, but that shouldn't deter us from our goals. We have to persevere. We have to keep swinging."

I don't think I truly appreciated the genius of that speech until the financial collapse in 2008 and the great recession that followed.

It's safe to say that for many people around the world, the last three years have been the economic equivalent of many chickens defecating on our heads. It's been a slow, awful slog through sluggish markets, volatile politics, and incredible uncertainty. The statistics we're barraged with every week are numbing. Unemployment rates. Bankruptcy rates. Foreclosure rates. Poverty rates. Deterioration of wealth. Euro crisis. The list goes on.

The question is, what do you do about it? What do you do when you lose your job? Your business? Your home? What do you do when years of careful planning are totally upended, or someone you love gets sick, or your kids are struggling?

While each of us adjusts to life's challenges in different ways, the simple truth is that most of us do just what the wise man did when the chicken dirtied his head.

We just keep on swinging. We keep moving forward. We adjust. We live.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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