Over the years, I’ve interacted with many people who I believe thought of themselves as clever. Clever is an adjective with positive attributes. Merriam-Webster (MW) defines clever as: mentally quick and resourceful. Sounds like a good thing to me; we should all want to be clever. Unfortunately, I observe that some clever people are also cunning. While cunning is a synonym of clever, consider this simple definition of cunning from MW: getting what is wanted in a clever and often deceptive way. Deceptive adds an altogether different, negative connotation. For example, the noun deception has synonyms that include fraud, subterfuge, and trickery.
Perhaps a good general example of cunning is when one person exploits the trusting nature of another to gain an advantage. By gain an advantage, I mean to stage a perception that aids the exploiter, or by making the trusting soul feel and/or look like a fool.
When I was a teenager, I belonged to a youth organization that helped teenage boys develop into responsible, law-abiding young men. A few adults ran the local organization and guided us teenagers in both civic and personal development activities. Some of the adults who helped out were parents of some of the boys. As boys worked their way up in the organization during their teen years, they could (if desired) run for the several elected offices of the group.
I left the organization before my high school graduation. Decades later I was going through a box of mementos when I came across an old newspaper clipping from my hometown newspaper. My mother had cut it out and saved it for me. It included a photo of me and another boy in the organization. It showed us working together on a civic project for an upcoming holiday. As soon as I came across the clipping, I remembered having seen it many years ago. This time, however, I quickly saw something about the photo that had totally escaped me in my youth.
When the photo was taken, I was maybe 16 or 17 years-old. The boy I was working with (I’ll call him Roy) had just joined the organization, so that would have made him around 13. He was a pleasant fellow even though I didn’t know him very well. I recall his father was also at the photo shoot, along with a photographer from the newspaper. In fact, it was the father who told us how to pose for the picture. Roy was posed standing on the third step of a step ladder so he could reach the work area. I was posed standing at ground level, reaching up with my right hand to give Roy a staple gun. The angle was such that Roy’s face was oriented more towards the camera while my face was at best a side profile.
Looking at the clipping now, it was clear to me that I had been set up. I now realize that Roy’s father knew exactly what he was doing when he set up the pose. He was showing his son in his best symbolic light – moving up the ladder, face towards the camera for good recognition – while I, a more senior member of the group, was shown merely as his helper. I now realize that Roy’s father, who otherwise seemed like a typical parent, was actually a very cunning man.
Naturally, I was a naïve young man back then. My mother, being the sweet lady that she was, never saw the symbolism and kept the clipping for me as a memento. My dad never paid any attention to such things, which helps explain why I was in the organization to begin with.
I can’t say that this event had any significant effect on my life back then – it’s hard to say for sure. As for now, it’s an open question. Why? Well, for starters I learned that tragedy had struck Roy some years after this seemingly harmless photo shoot. Sadly, he died of illness in his mid-twenties, and his father was understandably devastated.
It sounds both ridiculous and baseless of me to suggest that the actions of Roy’s father long ago had anything to do with his son’s tragic demise. And yet, as I look across other events of my life, and other people whose paths have intersected with mine, it all gives me pause. In future posts, I’ll say more about these other events and why they give me pause for thought. For now, let me simply say that I believe that all the cunning in the world couldn’t have averted Roy’s tragic ending.