I once was friends with a motivational speaker. An actual motivational speaker! He made his living going from venue to venue, yelling into a microphone and whipping everyone up into a frenzy. He was a very popular attraction. I mean, not Tony Robbins popular or Wayne Dyer popular, but for eastern Washington, he had quite a following.
He started out as a football coach. I suppose he spent years honing his excitatory skills in pep rallies and pre-game hormone soaked locker rooms. I could only imagine how his teams performed on the field; after an hour of watching him pace and flail, entire auditoriums full of adults would dance out the door, resolute in their ability to conquer the world. He was a sight to behold!
But here's the thing: he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I know this because I heard the promises he made during his speeches. He would wax poetically about how with positive thinking and affirmations, your could accomplish anything. ANYTHING! You could finish school, pass the bar exam, make $1,000,000! You could completely restore an old house on your own, despite an unsound foundation. You could reverse a food allergy. You could make $2,000,000 -- from a home based business without ever leaving the sofa! You could resuscitate a failed marriage, no matter what anyone else told you. You could re-grow an amputated limb.
Often he would pepper his speeches with examples of people who had attended his workshops or who worked with him one-on-one. He was unflinchingly confident that their fates lay exclusively in their positive outlook and refusal to be deterred. Sam, the 17 year old kid with the spinal cord injury, would walk again. Julie, the 90 year old woman with Alzheimer's, would write a memoir for her great-grandchildren. Bill, the 49 year old man with esophageal cancer, would eat a steak dinner on his 50th birthday.
Of course, none of these scenarios worked out as he said. Sam went on to college and found a cute little girlfriend -- from a wheelchair. Bill celebrated his birthday with family and friends at a huge party that his wife planned for him. After a wonderful day, he went home and ingested several hundred calories of nutrition through a peg tube. And Julie? Julie lived a long, significant, meaningful life and left behind a large family and countless friends at the age of 91. They didn't need a memoir to remember how wonderful she was.
None of these people achieved the outcomes that my friend, the motivational speaker, had promised them. Here's the other thing: it didn't matter. Not one of these people cared that he had promised them something he couldn't deliver. They did not feel cheated. They did not feel like they had been sold snake oil. Instead, they felt like they had been sold hope.
"Oh, well, it was worth a shot" Sam said to me later that year. "At least now I know I tried everything I possibly could and I can move on with my life without regrets."
Here's the third thing: sometimes during one of his speeches, when he was bouncing around, stamping and clapping and chanting some pithy soundbite like "You can do it" or "Believe to receive", I actually believed him. I mean, I knew he had no idea what he was talking about. And I knew the people he talked about rarely, if ever, achieved what he said they would. And every fiber of my being was crying out that this guy was a charlatan who took advantage of unfortunate people. But when the crowd was clapping and chanting in time to his hyperkinetics, I would feel myself get swept up in the spirit. I would think that maybe, just maybe, sometimes things did work out the way he said the would.
In those moments, the world appeared to be a magical place, a place where anything was possible. If only you clicked your heels three times or had a sprinkle of pixie dust. If only you could just let go of your cynicism and believe. And maybe feeling that way isn't such a bad thing.
Maybe the real purpose of my friend's speeches wasn't to tell people the truth; the truth will eventually find its way in. Maybe his real genius was in getting people to forget the awful truth for just a little while and live in never-never land where hope is eternal and you never grow up. Maybe every now and then that's just what we need.