Questions Never Really Answered at the Awards Dinner – an essay by John Backman

Questions Never Really Answered at the Awards Dinner 

Where am I? 

An easy one for starters. I had just walked into the four-star hotel, the cocktail hour for our annual awards dinner in full swing. The cast of marketers didn’t change much from year to year, and neither did the details: suits, dresses, a tux or two, plates of liver wrapped in bacon, slosh of beverages amid a roar of chatter—how’s business, what’s the next big thing, did you hear about X she’s working at Y now, have you got anything up for awards this year. 

If you’re a marketer in our city, this is what you do. You gather at this awards dinner “to honor the best marketing campaigns of the past twelve months.” I can recite that mission statement like it was yesterday instead of fifteen years ago, when on that night the questions came and I started leaving it all behind.

What am I doing here?

Another easy question, in most years anyway. Where the hell else would I be? If you’re a marketer in our city, this is what you do. 

That was before my second visit to the monastery. 

My first visit, on a brilliant spring Sunday, happened at the prodding of two friends who’d gone there for years. They adored worshiping in the chapel and thought I might too. It has all the elements beloved by Catholics (like my friends) and Episcopalians (like me)—soaring arches, dark hardwood, rosette window, monks in cowls, prayer books, hymns, chants. Beautiful, to be sure. But beautiful was not what came to mind ten minutes after we found our seats. What came to mind was home. 

Why are these awards such an honor?

Any of the revelers could have told you. In advertising, the part of marketing I inhabited, many awards shows are about dazzle—the clever campaign that thrills industry insiders and maybe consumers too. Not this show. This show celebrated results, the kind that roll off marketers’ tongues in fluent jargon: number of impressions, click-throughs, eyeballs.

Any of the revelers could have told you. But not me, not that year. Without warning, my mind drew a blank. Only the questions kept coming. 

Why are awards so important? Why is marketing so important? Why are marketers always in a rush?

And they kept coming without a wisp of an answer. I knew the standard replies, but as soon as I entered the hotel they faded into pallid versions of themselves.

Marketers don’t live in an answerless world. There are always data—demographics, target audience size, consumer trends—and the time between question and answer had better be short, because clients and bosses are waiting. After years in marketing, that demand had baked itself into me. Which made the absence of answers feel disorienting, like a medical event about to strike. 

What is happening to me? 

The monastery wasn’t just about monks. It also welcomed associates: average folks who live a version of the monks’ lives but in their own homes, adapted to their own routines. Associates commit to a Rule of Life—a set of principles, values, and practices—just like the monks do. So they pray and meditate and read sacred texts and take part in retreats at the monastery, but they also go to their jobs and mow their lawns and some of them attend awards dinners. Their Rule (if they’re like me) becomes a framework for going deeper, way deeper, into medieval mystics and Zen masters and all manner of things, drawing them ever closer to Spirit. I’d heard about this years before I ever laid eyes on the monastery, and the word associate had smoldered just behind my solar plexus, awaiting its chance. 

That chance came on my second visit, a retreat this time. Three days of solitude, a bit of talk with the monks and guests, and at the end a decision: apply to become an associate, yes or no. Most people think of retreats as islets of bliss, but this one turned into a crucible. The hours of solitude dredged up every flaw and heartbreak and insecurity I have never faced, let alone resolved. Home is famous for this, when you think about it: not just dredging up your shit but giving you shelter to look at it all. 

Most people would flee in horror, but the smolder persisted. It was a couple of weeks after I applied for associateship that I went to the awards dinner and was struck dumb.

Who is asking all these questions?        

An emperor once posed a similar question during a conversation with Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen in China. “What is the first principle of the holy teaching of Buddhism?” the emperor asked.

“Vast emptiness,” Bodhidharma replied. “Nothing holy.”

“Then who are you, standing here in front of me?”

“I don’t know.”

I can tell you who I am, more or less, fifteen years after the dinner. I am an ex-marketer. I am someone who writes essays and helps a few seekers find God in their lives and prays and meditates and practices Zen as well as Christianity and earns next to nothing. Meanwhile, my old colleagues produce their next campaign and earn results and reap the rewards.

But on the night of that dinner, as I stood apart scanning the crowd for people to schmooze, I had the same answer as Bodhidharma to the same question. I don’t know. All I knew were the questions themselves, stopping me cold as I looked at all those people whom I knew so well and who—until that moment—had known me too.  

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spiritual director, bigender person, and quasi-hermit, John Backman writes about ancient spirituality and the unexpected ways it collides with postmodern life. This includes personal essays in Catapult, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Tiferet Journal, Amethyst Reviewand Sufi Journal, among other places. Last year John was named a top 10 creative nonfiction finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards

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