Author Archives: Don Meyer

Kindness

One of those childhood memories, which lingers with me – though it has little to do with anything of importance to my childish interests – was an assignment in grade school to do a dramatic reading of a lyric about racial prejudice. We did this in unison as a class.

On the surface this seems like something out of the recent conflicts over the teaching of CRT in today’s schools. But this event took place more than sixty years ago, when I was about ten years old – or thereabouts.

The song lyric was from the Broadway musical South Pacific. I didn’t know that until a few years later, when I saw the movie version. In that presentation the actor John Kerr sang to the lovely Mitzi Gaynor about having to be “carefully taught” to hate based on racial differences. His musical insights followed a clearly stated premise that one is not born with any ethnic bias. It must be learned.

The song was controversial in that post World War II era, when Jim Crow attitudes still held sway. Rogers and Hammerstein, the creators of the musical based on James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, claimed it was the theme on which the entire production hinged. They refused to remove it from the stage play, which subsequently secured its inclusion in the movie adaptation as well.

I mention this childhood episode for the simple reason that I think it takes even greater care to carefully teach someone how to be kind. Virtues are not endemic. They derive from experience, usually instilled in us by word and deed from those we love and admire. As a result they become outcomes of our nature and produce behaviors, which in keeping with this week’s message include acts of kindness.

For this series I am working my way through a list of what I consider to be outcomes as presented in a letter of more than two thousand years vintage. It was written by a man of Hebrew heritage for an audience of mixed ethnic members in a Greek city governed by Roman authorities. Within this cultural concoction of conflicting influences the Apostle Paul encouraged his readers to exhibit the qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I have already written, no doubt inadequately, about the first four qualities. It’s time for me to consider the merits of kindness.

The Greeks, whose language Paul used to reach a global audience, had a word for it; chrestotes. Its implication was one of moral goodness producing a variety of actions designed to benefit others. Things have not changed much over the millennia as we have also been encouraged, through marketing like messages, to commit random acts of kindness to counter the prevalence of selfish, destructive behaviors.

A survey of the stories that make the news and dominate social media might prompt us to decide the advocates of kindness have failed. But I would say that kindness rarely makes the news. It’s simply not violent, manipulative or sexy enough to matter. Controversy reigns.

For me on the other hand, I once fell in love with someone whose very expression was infused with kindness. Tone of voice supported my perception of the illumination behind her eyes and the manner in which she attended to others’ needs, mine own included. Physical beauty was a bonus. That she said yes to my proposal was just as astounding to me then as it is now, some fifty years later.

Much has changed during that time, but not the essential qualities which comprise her heart and mind; kindness being one of them. I’ve come to believe she simply can’t help herself. The lessons carefully taught her when a child have held claim to her soul with no less certainty than pigmentation determines the resolute color of our skin.

Here are six takeaways from a lifetime of marveling at the art of kindness on display in my most intimate of relationships.

Whenever we were in a group my wife had an innate commitment to speak with everyone present. If she were a politician we would call it working the room. With her, however, it was a statement about the importance of even the least auspicious personage within her reach.

Every contact began with a smile; an unconditional, wordless statement of goodwill. I never saw her gesture rejected.

Each conversation was a Q&A session. My wife asked the questions – always concerning the interests of the other person, who reciprocated by sharing information of the most personal nature, confident that such insights would be held in confidence by someone emerging as a new best friend forever.

Where kindness proved to be appalling, within my way of thinking at least, was in my wife’s tendency to create a sense of mutual identity with such phrases as “I know exactly how you feel” or – even worse – “I’ve done exactly the same thing.” These twin phrases usually followed a person’s admission to some weakness I could not countenance. In my mind, we weren’t that bad.

Before these one-sided telling exchanges were over, my wife made sure to mention the other person’s name at least once. Dale Carnegie informed us in his 1936 masterpiece How to Win Friends and Influence People that a person’s name was the most important word – to them – in the English language (unless you spoke French or some other foreign gibberish). My wife was apparently a Carnegie acolyte.

Somehow conversations ended without ever saying the word “Good-bye”. My guess is that it created an implied promise of a future meeting, which in turn likely left the impression with her counterpart of being likeable.

I would say that the above items provide an outline of human kindness on the make.

Kindness may lack the depth and the risk of compassion, but that is okay. Kindness is much more flexible in its outward expressions. Kindness allows us to be anonymous in our giving and humble in our magnanimity. We offer someone else precedence at in a place in line. They respond with a thank you. It is a matter of give and give in return. Try it. It is an inexpensive way to create happiness.

Patience (Again)

This current series concerns the examination of a list of nine items people often identify as virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

For my part I consider them to be outcomes; the consequence of things learned which alter our thinking and subsequently our behavior. Such things are acquired by various means, partly by being human. We are – as the saying goes – hardwired towards a cooperative or compliant nature in order to survive within the sanctity of a stable community. More often, I think, we are hardwired to learn from those we love or admire; the family we are born into, the teachers we are assigned to and the friendships we cultivate by either convenience or choice. Pure instinct has its limits.

To the spiritually astute, you will recognize this list as coming from the writings of the Apostle Paul during the early development of the several isolated Christian communities. His surviving text is in the form of a common Greek language of Paul’s day to which I refer as the best way to understand what the apostle meant when compiling his list.

The word at hand is makrothumia, typically translated as patience or steadfastness. In the King James Version of the Bible it is translated as long-suffering. It is a compound word derived from makro meaning long and thumia meaning temper. It was used by the Greeks in reference to those who chose to withstand painful suffering without complaint, endured some displeasure or merely waited, bidding their time instead of actively pursuing instant gratification. No matter which situation was applicable at the time, it was understood by our classic forebears that patience was a choice not an imposition.

I wrote about patience back in October, when I was following an outline about virtue established by Professor Karen Swallow Prior in her book On Reading Well. She took the position that “,,, the virtue of patience entails much more than merely waiting. The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.” I would contend that the classic concept of patience involves the willingness to accept the consequences of our decisions. Suffering maybe, but more often than not it is simply a matter of keeping one’s sense of anxious expectation under control until the desired result is achieved. For this we need to understand that there is no guarantee about duration. Life is open ended that way.

Suffering is something Paul and other early church leaders had in mind as they dealt with the reality of persecution from the ethnic and religious phobias of their day. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in his letter: Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:10-11)

James counseled patience in the face of suffering and his perspective is, admittedly, one of coping with more than a mild inconvenience. What I have underlined, though, is a point which I think is very important for us to remember. We may even find encouragement in it as we await whatever goal launched us on the path of patience to begin with.

We are always being observed and those who watch us make assessments of the situation and our character based on what they see. James notes for us that when we persevere, those around us see what we endure and how we manage any attendant hardships. They may not call us blessed, as that is a rather archaic concept in our post-modern era. But the good people among us will empathize, even when they lack the personal experience to understand the depth of our commitment.

I have seen this in the three friends of mine who have undergone chemotherapy in this past year. All three have done so without complaint despite what one of them calls “rat poison” being introduced into their already fragile systems. The response by us onlookers and well-wishers is universally favorable as we heap praise on them for their patient endurance of the treatment.

If you could sit down and talk to each one of them I think you would find that the patience you see exhibited in how they have handled their respective situations is the outcome of what they have learned since childhood and not a recent addition to their arsenal of stout character. Patience drives their response to these challenges, which cannot be ignored or avoided.

Patience is possible as it directs our attention towards a better day. Patience believes in, relies on hope as should we all.

Peace

This is part four in our continuing series about outcomes. These are changes in behavior based on a change in perception, causing us to repent (to turn around and go in another direction) of our former practices.

Challenges about the spoiling of our natural resources led many of us to adopt a discipline of recycling paper, metal and certain plastics as a remedial effort to mitigate the carnage. The evidence changed our thinking, which in turn changed our behavior; the outcome of a campaign to save the earth for the benefit of future generations.

One of the most successful campaigns of this type was the Great Smoke Out of the 1970s. It was a one-day challenge to stop smoking in light of medical research linking smoking to lung cancer. Held annually, it is now a forgotten relic of persuasion due to its magnificent success. Smokers went from being the suave majority with considerable economic clout, to being pariahs of a zombiesque stature, proving that outcomes can create meaningful paradigm shifts.

My own purpose for writing about outcomes, though, is personal and not commercial or political and thereby far less likely to make the network news than a stop smoking campaign. I am using a list of nine outcomes proposed by a radical thinker of a different era, the Apostle Paul of New Testament fame. For the sake of full disclosure I will gladly admit to being an adherent of the one who caused Paul to flip his affiliation from avowed Pharisee to a pie in the sky zealot. So I cannot deny a bias in finding these outcomes to possess a certain potency in favorably shaping our lives and benefiting the people who are closest to us.

So far I have done my trifling best to expound on the merits of love and joy as drivers of our behavior. This week’s message is about peace, which for the Greeks – on whose language we are dependent for knowing what Paul meant – was the absence of division. To be at peace is to be joined together. Unity is the hallmark of peaceful relations. I stress this because it is evident in the items that do make the network news that we are not at peace with one another in this country or elsewhere.

Paul’s advice about peace from a Christian perspective is that it is to govern our lives. His application was solely to that first generation of believers for which he held a proprietary concern as their spiritual father. His admonition pointed out that they were members of one entity he termed the body of Christ and therefore they were to be united by being at peace with one another. His fear was that the composition of these early home-church groups would cause the members from otherwise disparate economic and ethnic castes to be at continual odds with one another to the point of eventually destroying a pacifist movement before it even started. We see such a cultural disintegration in our own social fabric today.  

That Paul could also write that the peace we feel within surpasses all understanding indicates to me at least that it is not a naturally inherent part of being human. To borrow – ironically – from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the outcome of peace in our lives leads to actions that mark us being superhuman. I follow the theory espoused by another first generation Christian that “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” James 3:18

The “R” word is not a term we readily use in today’s world. It smacks of having a Pollyanna attitude in an otherwise cruet and pessimistic society. But righteousness is merely a word indicating correct moral behavior. For James, the author of this statement, that would mean the morality of the Old Testament as he was a Jew by birth. He is also believed to be the brother of Jesus, the perpetrator of all this subversive religious fervor. But here we find a value in the concept of peace that would benefit our own wellbeing in the midst of our national conflicts today.

The Old Testament writers, particularly those designated as prophets, claimed that Israel’s problems stemmed from the lack of justice among its political and religious leaders. The measure of the injustice they witnessed was to be found in how widows, orphans and aliens were treated. Applying that concept to the issues of our day, we could restate James’ proclamation to read “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of social justice.”

A recent article in a national magazine bemoaned the perpetual conflict within the U.S. and targeted certain profiteers of divisiveness as the culprits. The article’s subtitle, however, served to undermine the article’s well-intentioned premise as it promised to provide an antidote for how we might “fight” this type of destructive influence. The subtitle brought to mind a popular anti-war slogan of the Viet Nam era: Fighting for peace is like balling for chastity.”

Peacemaking, not fighting, is the solution. The promised outcome of a harvest in what is morally right portends another one of those paradigm shifts for the benefit of future generations. May that prove to be true.

Joy

My current series of messages is about outcomes of a personal nature.

Outcomes reflect the changes in our thinking expressed by the changes in our behavior. Many of us have taken the need for clean air, clean water and a reduced reliance on landfills to alter our behavior about recycling. What we heard in the past about these activities being beneficial to the earth, sky and future generations altered our thinking and how we behave. Recycling is an outcome of the environmentalists advocacy.

When I write about outcomes of a personal nature, however, my focus is on character, my own. If we are to truly have an impact in this world, if only concerning our immediate family, friends and colleagues, then I believe wholeheartedly that the example we preach must be practiced and that very openly so that others can hold us accountable for what we say and do.

With this in mind I am following a list of what I term to be outcomes, which I have borrowed from a gifted writer-theologian we know as the Apostle Paul. He considered nine attributes to be essential for the spirit-filled life, which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. No one would likely object to the items on this list being representative of other people’s behavior. The challenge is to make them our own.

Last week I offered my thoughts on what we mean by love, the kind which is unconditional, self-sacrificing and life-giving. This week the topic is joy.

Joy is one of those exquisite words which defy our best efforts at precision definition. We simply know it when we feel it.

The Greek word the Apostle Paul used in his letter to his spiritual children living in what is now modern day Turkey was chara. It is related to the word we translate as grace (charis) and both have a common root meaning cheerful or calmly happy. This should tip us off that joy is not synonymous with happiness, which has a tendency towards being rather expressive as in taking the form of exuberance. The Greeks used it in salutations, wishing someone a serene happiness. Our banal way of saying this is “Have a nice day.”

William Wordsworth began one of his more popular poems with the phrase “Surprised by joy”. He did not reveal what caused the surprise, only his impulse to turn and share it someone special, who – sadly – was not there. His brief moment of euphoria was offset by the realization that the one he wanted to share it with, his “heat’s best treasure” (his daughter) was dead. In the midst of Wordsworth’s actual grief, however, joy found him.

C.S. Lewis subsequently borrowed the phrase to use as the title of his memoir emphasizing his spiritual journey atheism to faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Lewis also wrote of grief (his mother’s death), a sense of isolation (being unloved by an emotionally distant father), and emptiness (an abandonment of a traditional concept of faith at the behest of an atheistic tutor). But in the midst of despair came a sensation Lewis called joy, which in turn prompted a search for a sustained experience that defied his best efforts until he found it residing in a permanent relationship with the Divine.

But does joy only come to us as a surprise? Paul’s letter would indicate otherwise.

Even with what little is revealed here as far as the backstory for both Wordsworth and Lewis, the perception of joy in the lives of these two men accompanies other sensitivities, namely the capacity to experience grief and a forlorn hope. The presence of this type of emotional pain indicates – to my way of thinking – a heart embracing what is beautiful and what is morally good. In the absence of such factors we become desensitized and incapable of knowing joy, only its painful counterpart.

Of course no one could have been more surprised by joy than the lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night just outside of Bethlehem. They experienced fright first, when confronted by an angelic specter, who counseled them “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy (chara) that will be for all people.” This occurred just prior to the sky being filled with an angelic fanfare from a spectral choir, who exuberantly proclaimed a more raucous message of peace and goodwill.

Maybe joy does resound in our presence once in a great while.

Love

We are at the start of a new series about outcomes. Last week I defined this as a change in behavior, which can result from various experiences; all of them life changing.

The specific topics for this series are drawn from a list created by the Apostle Paul in his letter to a small group of first generation Christians living in the city of Galatia in what is now modern day Turkey. His tone was rather alarming as he reacted to their enticement from outsiders for these initiates in the faith to adhere anew to the former way of Godly worship by observing the requirements of the Mosaic Law. For Paul this was tantamount to a loss of dearly won spiritual freedom.

He redirected the thinking of those he earnestly cared for by identifying nine behaviors as evidence that the Spirit of God was alive and well within them. Love was the first item on the list.

For those of us who rely on others to define the Greek words used in Paul’s letter, the type of love he wrote about was agape, defined as an unconditional, self-denying affection that was to be freely shared with any and all, who came into their charitable orbit. In fact Jesus told his most dedicated followers that they would be easily identifiable by others if they loved one another in this manner, following his example, which was extreme.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus told those who were with him for a last meal immediately prior to his arrest and execution. This pronouncement came as part of a lengthy sequence, recorded for us by the Apostle John, which began with Jesus’ awareness that his earthly ministry was nearing its end. “Having loved (agape) his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.”

The Greeks had three other words they used for the types of love commonly experienced in the everyday world. Storge, often translated as empathy, is the love one has for family and close personal friends. Phila is the love one has for mankind in general. And eros, the root for our word erotic, described romantic love capable of being both good and bad. In fact all loves can be counterfeited. We are absolutely capable of faking bliss.

Being neither a philosopher nor theologian my take on the issue is that there is only one kind of love and that is the agape of Jesus’ teaching. Any differentiation we might make of it is a matter of degrees and our relationship to the recipient of our love. My proof would simply be in the love a mother has for her child. While we might categorize this as storge love it is no less all-encompassing, all-giving and just as unconditional as the fullest expression of agape love can be.

What counts, then, is the quality of the love that resides within us, an outcome based on prior experience and teaching that affects what we do and how we do it for others. For it is a mistake to separate the motive from the action, the outcome seen in the service it compels. Love may not conquer all in terms of the people we encounter, but it must surely conquer ourselves if we are to properly express it.

Outcomes

One of the greater challenges I faced when serving as a non-profit administrator involved fundraising, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has done this kind of work before. It takes a good deal of research to identify the most likely prospects, whose own priorities match those of your organization. Then you must determine the best way to make personal contact with them in the hope of having a face-to-face meeting, whereby you both discover – to your mutual delight – that what amounts to a courtship will become a marriage made in heaven.

There is a technique for this; a sincere one. You do not have to be a donation predator to be effective in performing this role. We call it donor nurture and the emphasis is always placed on developing a long-term relationship in which everyone is pleased with the result. Trust ensues.

The greater challenge I have in mind, however, is not in cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship with a person who can transform a dream into a reality through their financial support. Rather it is the need to understand the aftermath of your work, the outcomes which are much harder to identify than the net worth of a prospective donor.

Outcomes are hard to understand because they are typically not measureable. Unlike cash receipts or attendance figures or site construction, outcomes are elusive and defy the best of us to encapsulate their presence within the framework of a financial report. They are the change in attitude initiated in the heart of the recipient of your product or service due to some ethereal benefit to them. Outcomes thereby answer the lingering question of whether or not your outputs (your products and services) achieved the intended results in changing a person’s life by altering their behavior and that in a good way.

Outputs, like financial reports showing revenue and expenditures, garner our attention because they are so easy to compile and distribute. They reflect the monetary value of our performance as entered into an accounting system measuring quantity and time. Most of our attention stops here as if this is the sum total of what we need to know about who we are, what we are doing and for whom. Outcomes, on the other hand, are soft, indeterminate and personal, rendering us less comfortable in confronting them. Yet they can be targeted and must become an integral part of our strategic planning process if we are to understand what we are all about and our capability of living up to our subjective standards.

It’s not my job anymore to validate my opinions about the outcomes of an organization under my care. I do still trouble over outcomes in a different way, though. I wonder about my own as in “What is the outcome(s) of my recent blog series on virtue?” Did it have any effect on me, let alone a reader, beyond the obvious benefit of giving me something to write about and post on a timely basis? I can say yes, but who is to know if that is really true, especially in this digitally distanced world we live in today?

I am not a manager anymore but the manager mindset has never left me. If anything I am a company of one, who still functions with a sense of mission, vision, values, inputs, outputs and – yes – outcomes. It is the latter which obviously concerns me at the moment.

Writing about virtue was not an assignment. It was a choice. The topic fit nicely into my never ending quest for character development for the sake of those who know me (family and friends these days) and who rely on me for doing more than my just being around like some accommodating fixture. There is a moral component to any relationship the essence of which is the compilation of the various virtues one endeavors to cultivate within the fabric of the soul. For the right to advise and consent in the lives of others that soul must be in pretty good working order.

This brings me back to outcomes, those of a personal nature. I wonder what behaviors have changed in me during my seven decades that indicate I’ve added value to the lives of those for whom I care? This is my new blog topic and to adopt a plan of sensible introspection, I am going to borrow the strategy used by Karen Swallow Prior for her discourse on virtue by making use of a classic theological/philosophical list of what I consider to be outcomes as my guide.

The list is found in a letter written by the Apostle Paul to a fledgling group of early Christians in the city of Galatia, a town in what is now the nation of Turkey. My take on his letter is that he was struck by the fear that this group founded on the concept of grace was about to abandon its foothold in freedom in order to adopt a more traditional view for legalistic behavior. His defining statement was that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” So this will not be about rules and regulations, but about choices we freely make.

Key to my purpose is his subsequent list of outcomes for his audience to employ in place of ritual and tradition. He wrote of these outcomes metaphorically as being like fruit, behaviors that others could see and receive as nourishing produce emanating from the internal presence of a transcending spirit. The concerned apostle wrote to his wards that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  

Though a few of these outcomes repeat what we studied in the series on virtue, I will retain them as part of this series as essential elements to a completed portrait of an informed soul. In truth, it will also insure that I have topics for nine more weeks of messages in support of my desire to maintain the discipline of writing daily and posting these completed messages on a weekly basis.

I value the written word, my own especially, as a means to crystallize my thinking on any subject. This time with this endeavor my hope is that it may also benefit my soul as I make myself vulnerable on this path of serious introspection.

Of Storytellers and Book Readers

For the past several weeks my messages have been based on Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well. The focus of each message was about virtue and the way fictional literary works help to teach us by illustration about the nature of virtue. The series is over, but it did give me cause to reflect on something which, for me, precedes the love of books and that is the love of story.

I’ve already confessed that I was not an early reader. I struggled as a child and shunned books in favor of playing outside as often as possible. And yet I loved stories, just not from books as a reader. The credit for inspiring a love of stories in my young life goes to a few family members and teachers, who managed to capture my attention through the gift of storytelling and reading out loud.

My mother’s oldest brother had a gift for storytelling. He brought to life tales of my parents, aunts and uncles from an era I could never know, their own childhood. They were depression era kids, who grew up poor but didn’t know it because everyone else looked and lived just as they did. Later they went to war.

Knowing that my parents were kids once fascinated me. And the freedom they had as they roamed around the main street and back roads of small town America in a wholesome gang of family members and near-family friends made my own neighborhood rambles seem rather confined by comparison. On the other hand, they all took jobs to help make ends meet, while I and my friends were free to play whatever sport was in season without a care for how the mortgage payment would be made. The answer was in the lives of those kids my uncle told us about, who just happened to grow up to be dull (by my standards) adults.

My maternal grandmother was the first person I can recall who ever read to me. The story selection was from a well-illustrated children’s book with nursery rhymes and fables. My grandmother’s voice was calm and pleasant and I suspect she was careful in her choice of stories she read to me before bedtime so as not to excite my imagination too much to avoid the chance for any bad dreams. We were always protected.

Other book readers of precious influence were a few of my grade school teachers. The reading followed noon recess from which we emerged hot and sweaty from participating in my favorite pastime, play. The classroom lights were left off on sunny days to invoke a peaceful, restful atmosphere. We were told to keep our heads down on our desks in a semblance of taking a nap. Then when we were all behaved to the fullest extent possible, a chapter was read and the magic began again as children our own age were the heroes of adventures of which we could only dream of.

My love of stories was further fueled, but by television, not by books until I matured enough to be patient enough to read a book for myself. I love a good story, which – like my grade school experience – involves people I can identify with. Sci-fi and morbid thrillers fail to make the reading list. Dependence on a superhero or high tech mechanics to reach any type of conflict resolution is a book which remains on the library bookshelf.

I love a good story and I love those people from my past who helped instill a literary affection within me. 

In Review

We’ve reached the finish of series of messages on virtue following the outline provided by Karen Swallow Prior in her book On Reading Well. The benefit for me of writing about the twelve virtues covered in her book was twofold. First it kept me writing and posting on a weekly basis after a long absence of literary lethargy. Second it let me indulge my personal interest in character development, which is enabled by the pursuit of virtue. This in turn ennobles my intention to revitalize my desired discipline of writing in a timely manner. Thank you, Professor Prior.

What I failed to do during this mini-campaign was to give the Professor the proper respect due her work. Her methodology and philosophy about the very virtue of reading well was lost under the weight of my own exposition on the twelve virtues identified in her book. In review I would like to backtrack and give a little more attention to the process she advocates for herself and for her students at Liberty University.

Professor Prior acknowledges at the outset the role of John Milton, the Puritan author of Paradise Lost, as an early mentor. She found inspiration for her own pursuit of reading well in his insightful phrase “books promiscuously read.” His belief was that all books expose us to a wide array of knowledge from which we can develop a virtuous persona by knowing what constitutes good and evil without having to be practitioners of the latter. This viewpoint likely reveals his Puritan faith that given the chance the vast majority of us will inherently choose good over evil; a bias I think the good professor possesses as well.

Prior builds on Milton’s perspective with the admonition for us to read virtuously. She describes this as the “vicarious practice in exercising virtue,” which is performed by evaluating the behavior of the characters in any story. Her premise includes the concept that “Literary characters have a lot to teach us about character.” Those of good repute exemplify virtue; those who are not can thereby prompt us to seek the virtuous alternative in something of a mental retaliation against what we find distasteful.

Here are a few important Priorisms:

 “Reading well begins with understanding the words on the page.” Her teaching experience has taught her that some students – even at the college level – lack this skill. She watches a student’s eyes when she asks about the meaning of the words in the story. If they look up, as if searching for divine inspiration to rain down on them from above, she knows that they lack a definitive answer. But if they look down at the printed page, then she knows that are scanning the context of the words within the sentence, within the paragraph and the plot of the story to discern the correct answer.

“Read something enjoyable.” Reading well does not require reading something ordained by others as a must read. The point is to find those writers whose storylines engender a sense of delight. The challenge is to avoid stories that are too simple, qualifying as verbal pablum. Most of us have graduated well beyond the days of having fun with Dick and Jane. As such we are to seek out enjoyable books, which require, even inspire us to think. Her hope is that we will read books that “make a demand on you.”

“Read slowly.” The point here is to savor the words the way our tongues savor food. This approach reflects her belief that there is pleasure to be gained through the act of reading. And this takes us from the purely practical or intellectual benefits of reading to the emotional rewards as well. Beauty may be found in the well-crafted words of gifted writers, who bring fictional characters to life.  Loving some, admiring others is perhaps the surest sign of how these fictions can shape our lives virtuously.

“Read with a pen, pencil, or highlighter in hand, marking in the book or taking notes on paper.” This requires a confession on my part. Throughout this series I did not make a single mark in her book that I could not completely erase. My reason for doing so was honorable, not rebellious, as I intend to give my copy of her book to someone who I know for a fact needs her informed counsel. Desperately. Otherwise I agree with her statement that “The true worth of books is in their words and ideas, not their pristine pages.”

There is a lot more to what she has to say, but I will leave that for you to discover by purchasing her book and taking the plunge into literary criticism. This one final point, though, I wish to make in homage to Prior’s work. She loves language. To demonstrate, she uses Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue to make a case for how moral language has been left empty by the intellectual shift inflicted on us by the Age of the Enlightenment. Prior turns to books as the lone holdouts for the sanctity of words. “Literary language, inherently resonant with layers of meaning, reminds us what fullness of language looks like.”

There appears to be something of a mystical enchantment cast upon us in the way books retain the memory of words as intended by the authors of the past. Meaning abides if we know where to look for it and trust in its ability to persuade us of the value of virtue. It is what a good friend would do, as Prior notes:

 “Reading well adds to our life … the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.”

Humility

We have reached the last message about the virtues identified in Professor Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well. The series has given me the opportunity to reflect on things I truly believe are essential for the development of a moral character. It has also exposed me to the literary works Professor Prior asserts are valid teachers, though fiction based, of these qualities. I have thereby taken the liberty to offer my own suggestions about books, which have inspired me through the words and deeds of their fictional characters. Reading well has the ability to change us as the good professor insists.

The final virtue covered in Prior’s book is humility and her offering for literary examples in support of this virtue must be stated in the plural. For her examples come from two short stories written by author Flannery O’Connor; Revelation and Everything that Rises Must Converge

O’Connor is a writer with whom I am totally unfamiliar. This meant doing a little on-line research to gain some appreciation for her artistry and personal life. It is a clever saying that life imitates art, but I think that is only coincidental as art is derived from the life of its creator. O’Connor’s commitment to being a writer of southern vintage during the Jim Crow Era, her devout Catholic beliefs, health issues and the lack of a satisfying love relationship naturally infused her work.

O’Connor’s characters are noted for committing one or more of the seven deadly sins to which we must add racism as number eight. Their misdeeds are followed by an act of contrition if not repentance as they move away from their tepid Protestant roots to become more like O’Connor’s own Roman Catholic self. Redemption is key, though not always expressly achieved by story’s end.

Prior illustrates this through her choice of stories. In Revelation self-assured Ruby Turpin blithely criticizes others, revealing her own sin of pride. It also reveals the companion sin of hypocrisy as we see the things she condemns in others being vividly present in her own life. In a similar vein, Julian Chesney feigns a moral superiority by judging his mother’s intense racism in the story Everything that Rises Must Converge. To judge is to condemn and to condemn is to punish. Punishment is indeed meted out to Julian’s mother, but in a sinister way it is handed out to Julian as well as a consequence of his own lack of love and care for the one, despite her flaws, who sacrificed so much for him.

Pride is the overwhelming issue driving both stories. It is the antithesis of the virtue of humility. This leaves me in my usual quandary about learning from the negative perspective. It is simply not my forte in the quest for answers about life and love and meaning. Therefore I would like to offer an alternate literary work, which I think portrays humility as a positive develop in the protagonist’s story arc.

My choice is Amor Towles 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow. The story follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a man of once favored status as the scion of a prominent aristocratic family in Czarist Russia, who is exiled to house arrest in the Metropole Hotel conveniently located directly across from the Kremlin. In a truly wonderful irony, Rostov’s former cultivation of art, literature, manners, fine wine and gourmet tastes makes him the perfect head waiter. His descent from master to servant is accompanied by a moral growth as he willingly sheds his sense of entitlement, while gaining the friendship and respect of others in service with him. The camaraderie of this select group shames the national imitation, enforced by the Kremlin, by addressing each person as comrade in a supposed homogenization of fraternity.

Towles loads his story with subtle often amusing scenes of Rostov’s humbling and how each lesson learned aids the former Count in his adjustment to life as a prisoner. In truth it is hard to feel anything but joy for Rostov as his inner growth, his true humility born out of the Kremlin’s attempt to humiliate a former aristocrat, adds to his impressive six foot three physical stature. The beauty of this growth is reflected in the person of Sophia, a child forced on Rostov by an acquaintance, who develops into an exquisite young woman under his care and tutelage. She is the revelation of his soul in face and form.

Professor Prior quotes from the book Back to Virtue by author Peter Kreeft to help us understand that “Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.” This is the complete opposite of the mantra of our age in which we are told that to love others we must first love ourselves. Narcissism is the more likely result in place of humility, when self is enjoined to be perpetually preening in front of a self-obsessing mirror.

As a child I was taught a theological truth about humility through a simple song with the lines: “Jesus and others and you. What a wonderful way to spell joy.” The inherent mnemonic follows a sequence in which Jesus (J) is primary, Others (O) are second and You (Y) is third as the basis of true humility. The song ends with the line “Put yourself last and spell joy.” There are no mirrors in this mindset as the focus is outward as if through an open door of redemptive opportunity.

Kindness

Kindness needs no introduction. We know it when we see it.

That’s not to say that we, ourselves, are great practitioners of the art of kindness. But we are great consumers, when the need arises, and the need always arises.

We are nearing the end of our study of virtue, making use of Karen Swallow Prior’s 2018 book On Reading Well. The format of her book is balanced between examining the classical and theological definitions of various virtues, while encouraging us to take a deeper look into literary works as they provide, in a sense, living examples of these virtues. This week we experience the virtue of kindness through the short story Tenth of December by George Saunders.

Don Eber is a middle-aged man dying of cancer. He has come to the woods on the tenth day of December to commit suicide; death by hypothermia. As part of his plan he sheds his winter coat at a time when the air temperature – appropriately enough – is a mere ten degrees. Robin is a young boy, a doofus. He has come to the woods on that same day, caught up in the fantasy of rescuing the girl of his dreams from a nefarious foe as equally fictitious as his heroism. He is in effect another Charlie Brown lost in a vain pursuit of the little red-haired girl. What Robin does find is Don’s winter coat and his footprints in the snow. Enter kindness.

Robin follows the tracks, a real adventure still glazed over with a tinge of fantasy. His lack of true foresight puts him on thin ice, literally. Robin falls through the ice and into the frigid waters. Don Eber sees Robin’s plight and, despite his frail condition, stumbles to the boy’s aid. Although Robin is able to gain the shore on his own, the chill air and his wet clothes are killing him. Don gives the boy his own clothes in a life-saving gesture, which assures his own doom. Maybe.

I’ll stop there. If you want to know how the story ends, you can find it in a collection of Saunders’ stories published under the eponymous title Tenth of December. For our part, and pertinent to this message, is that kindness is endemic to both of these lost souls. Robin leaves his reverie out of concern for the owner of the coat. Don abandons his romance with death in order to give a dying boy a renewed chance at life. Though they are strangers to one another, their common humanity prevails.

This thought of kinship is a key feature of Professor Prior’s own perception of kindness. She provides us with the etymology of the word and demonstrates its relation to the word kin. She then uses the parable of the Good Samaritan as another type of literary illustration for the topic of kindness. This one stems from an encounter between Jesus and his detractors, which imparted his own theory of how kindness is a valid indicator of the nature of kinship. Those who understand the connectedness between kinship and kindness are not deterred from helping others they don’t know but recognize as a member of the human family.

There’s an issue of greater significance for Prior and the Tenth of December short story, which overwhelms the ending of her own narrative. It is rooted in the thinking of the character Don Eber. The man’s reason for committing suicide is his belief that he will be doing his family a favor. He sees his death in a lonely place as a release for them from the burden of caring for an emaciated, terminally ill person. This is based on his own bad experience presiding over the death of his stepfather, whose behavior became cruel at the end.

Don’s apprehension about his own slide into a dissipated state, where everything must be done for him (or even worse to him) causes him to seek solace in isolation and a reasonably quick end to his sense of humiliation by being “lessened” in his helplessness. Robin’s plight and Don’s role in saving the boy’s life changes all that. It is the beginning of an epiphany about love and care and family brought on by an act of kindness for a stranger.

Don’s reasoning changes to one of acceptance. “Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them?” Anyone who has watched a loved one die from the ravages of cancer knows that it can be a messy, seemingly demeaning even degrading process. But that is so only if we make it so. Dignity can be found in the doing as it renews the spirit through the refreshing of the body.

Still the thought of being lessened haunts us all. It does Professor Prior. In her candor she acknowledges her own kindred thoughts to those of Don Eber. She writes, “You see, I am so terribly afraid of dying. My own dying and other people’s dying and animals’ dying. I am afraid of the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping to come. I am afraid of the blood and the fluids and the suffering and the pain. I am afraid of being weak, sick, immobile, demented, blind, deaf – whatever of these might come to me and those I love.”

In our household we’ve had both experiences of a loved one who died alone and another who died in the comforting presence of family. The first was my older brother. At the time of his passing death was considered to be something of a taboo, kept hidden so as not to unduly upset anyone. The upset, however, if you ask my mother is dealing with the consequences of knowing your child died alone, unattended by even the hospital staff.

The clinical isolation of the terminally changed significantly following the 1969 publication of On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Hence, when my father died, he was home in his own bed with family present. My mother’s grief was still palpable but far less traumatizing compared to my brother’s passing.

I know the love I’ve given through kind and gentle acts which needed to be done. There is a peace of mind in the aftermath that all that could be done was done without resentment for the messiness of a protracted death. The ordeal fades from memory for the survivors as we fix on the good things of life, which long preceded a loved one’s difficult transition from this life to the next.

Those experiences shape much of how I view and value every aspect of life these days. It shows, I guess, in something as simple as my commitment to pick up the litter that defaces my daily walk. It is my gift to the neighbors I never see but who are my kin for merely being human.

Kindness is love in a minor key.