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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Discerning the real treasures, prizes in life

Published: Tuesday, March 20 2012 6:42 p.m. MDT

My cousin’s husband is a very successful corporate attorney. He does mergers and acquisitions. He legally crafts new companies. When the deals go through, there is a celebratory dinner. The principals who made it happen are often given some memento of their labors.

It may be an acrylic cube that includes a token of the job. For example, a gold nugget is incased if the negotiations were for a mining company or a golf ball if it were a resort. These are his hard-earned recognitions of more than 30 years practicing law.

His former partner, who often collaborated with him on the transactions, had the same sort of office decorations. Then this colleague became ill. Still relatively young with a family, his friend passed away from his disease. His widow was invited to the office to collect the artifacts of his professional life.

After looking around at the many emblems of corporate triumphs that adorned the shelves, she walked away with none of them.

My relative related this story and his own. He and his wife are now facing the same question. What should they do with all his memorabilia? Thinned and in pain, he is in the course of losing his own battle with cancer. He, too, no longer has any need nor desire for his trinkets.

In a talk, he shared the oft-told tale of building up treasures on earth and then what? He made me think about all of our collective affinity for trophies.

Some of us are attracted to trophies more than others, in spite of our denials. The inner need for medals may be tough to prove because anything can be a trophy: an idea, a house, muscles, family, looks, a suit of clothes, jewelry, titles, school success in the fourth grade, or some position of assumed prestige. The trophies may not be displayed on our mantels, but they are on our minds.

We are a society where everyone in kids’ sports gets a plastic trophy or wears the number one jersey. We give out the best of this or that award for the players. They are all made up. Trophies continue with the big boys and girls. U.S. Open, Wimbledon, Stanley Cup or Super Bowls all have their silver plates or massive punch bowls.

The sad part is this stuff can morph into what we see as our self-worth. In our imagination we become the little figure on the top acing the serve or hitting the long ball down the fairway. Trophies are like toys; he who dies with the most wins. But wins what?

Unconsciously, they also become amulets to protect us. Men use trophy wives as barriers against aging. Trophy homes are shelters not only from rain, but also from poverty.

In medicine, we display diplomas adorning the walls of our offices. Hunters mount their trophy animal heads; academics are content with sheepskins. Books in a study are defenses against feelings of never being smart enough. “I can’t be stupid; look at all my books,” many of which remain unread.

Corporate bonuses are no longer reasonable compensations for hard work but spitting matches for the rich and powerful that exceed all reason. The problem with these egregious trophies is that they distort our country’s personality.

Returning to my dear friend and relative, he gave us a list of his real prizes: his family, his friends and his beliefs. His message is a reminder to the rest of us. His wish is not to be famous but to be a servant to the end. There is no wood, silver, gold or plastic that will mark that legacy.

For us with our collection of trophies, the landfill needs to set aside a plot for the burial of all our diplomas, awards, plaques, letter-jackets, clippings and cubes. While still alive, we should start to wean ourselves from the clutter.

Decide now on our treasures.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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