Say a Little Prayer: Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin sings "My Country 'Tis Of...
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Aretha Franklin has pancreatic cancer.

In the land of good and bad cancers – if there is such a thing- pancreatic cancer is on the bad side. Aretha’s life expectancy – at least this life – is not so hot.

Aretha – one of those people who can go by their first name and everyone knows who you’re talking about – was my companion as a skinny tall white kid growing up in the highly homogenized suburbs of Portland, Oregon. If I’ve shot one jump shot by myself at a basket in a gym with Aretha’s music by my side with what passed for a boom box of that era, I’ve shot tens of thousands of jump shots.

She is a large African-American woman who came to prominence and public adoration when skinny women who were white, or “dressed white,” were all the rage. She has mostly done things her way, and in doing so inspired a generation that they can be successful by being themselves. “Her way” also led to 18 grammies, and acclaim as the first female inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

You have people in your like life Aretha; people who have been by your side in one way or another, people who know you well or who will never meet you. They are your life’s traveling companions and if they pass a small hole in your heart forms in the spot they once inhabited.

Aretha was on my Walkman (Pink Cadillac ) when I started my corporate ascent in the early 1980’s spending months worth of time on airplanes traveling to negotiate labor contracts with Teamsters in places like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit.

When my partner sickened from AIDS in the late ’80’s – a time when sit and wait was the most optimistic medicine for HIV- her songs (Angel) kept me going.

And two years ago Aretha sang at President Obama’s inauguration, joining all Americans in witnessing an event whose time was long past, though many never thought it would never happen in our lifetimes.

The power of optimism is both strong and real – it’s just not so predictable. As a recent piece on research behind optimism – The Power of Positive Thinking: How Did Pollyanna Knowillustrates how belief informs behavior and outcomes. Being optimistic has a powerful impact on the reality that unfolds.

And it’s not just optimism that leads to positive outcomes. Norman Cousin’s well chronicled bout with cancer and his use of humor as an antidote is well known; what not’s understood is how the mind or the spirit shapes the physical state of our lives.

Years ago when I had taken some time off and trying to figure out when or if I’d land, outplacement counselor Joe Murphy suggested I pray. Since I’m at best a Christmas Episcopalian (e.g. the only time I ever go to church is on Christmas) it was an odd suggestion. But I prayed – and one week later the perfect role surfaced with my name on it.

So tonight I’ll say a little prayer for Aretha, and pray that whatever life has in store for her she travels it with the same grace with which she’s lived her life. Who knows? It certainly won’t hurt, and the evidence suggests it just might help.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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