Author Archives: Don Meyer

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.

Patience

A word of advice imparted to me at a young age was to never ask God for patience. This is due to the idea that to prove you possess this Heavenly virtue you must also be confronted with all manner of trials and tribulations in order to affirm that you have the gift to patiently handle such difficulties. In truth, I think the motivation behind praying for patience is because the trials and tribs are already present. Something else in us, though, does not want to act out in an offensive way no matter how unjust the source of our torment. So we seek the solace of a life well lived by demonstrating patience in the face of adversity.

Patience, to my way of thinking, comes from an informed conscience. Other values are already present governing our thoughts on how we are to behave based on our observations of people we both love and admire. Following the advice contained in English professor Karen Swallow Prior’s book, On Reading Well, we’ve come to learn that this admiration can be applied to fictional characters as well. This week as we discuss the virtue of patience we find that Anne Elliott is just such a person. She is the fictional creation of Jane Austen in the author’s last completed manuscript, Persuasion, published posthumously in 1817.

Anne’s story begins before we even open the book, meaning there is significant backstory to comprehend in order to explain what is happening, and why, in the present. Anne was nineteen when she fell in love with the handsome naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He proposed, but Anne rejected him on the advice of a trusted friend, hence one reason for the title Persuasion. Anne was persuaded that the marriage would be ill suited for her owing to the fact that Wentworth’s social status was beneath her. Wentworth went to sea and eight years later, when the novel begins, Anne is twenty-seven, past the bloom of youth and therefore regarded as being “on the shelf” in the colloquialism of the day.

Given this scenario and given that the novel is by Jane Austen, it’s an easy bet that Anne and Wentworth will find love in each other’s arms by story’s end. And this being an Austen novel it’s also an easy bet that the whole thing will be populated with a variety of characters, whose actions and mannerisms offer Austen much to critique for the sake of the reader’s amusement. Anne, however, is the story’s moral compass. Anne is patient and this drives our empathy for her pleasing character.

Professor Prior writes that “,,, the virtue of patience entails much more than merely waiting. The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.”

This perspective is something that the good professor and I share with Jane Austen, the daughter of a Church of England rector. It follows the pronouncement of James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote: 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)

Notice the added element of being blessed for one’s perseverance. Austen imbues that quality in her protagonist. It helps to explain one’s willingness to endure the suffering, whether emotional, spiritual or physical. Anne’s perspective is one of what we now call playing the long game; looking past the immediate in hopes for some rewarding yet undefined resolve. There is consequently the evidence of trust in Anne’s soul. She trusts in that compassion and mercy of a guiding spirit. It is further an indication that patience is a multi-layered virtue. It requires maturity to be lived appropriately.

Anne has a servant’s heart. She does not sit and pine away for what was lost. She shows compassion to others of less noble character; support for family, who are frivolous in their financial dealings; and finds joy in the small things others fail to appreciate, which might well be obscured to any of us who indulge in the more self-aggrandizing things of life. She demonstrates that patience is not synonymous with passivity, otherwise Austen could not have crafted a complete and popular novel around her. Who, then, would not welcome having Anne as an admirable friend?

Austen scholars point out that Anne Elliott is the author’s most mature creation. It is likely that an aging Jane Austen, declining in health, was able to create Anne from her own experiences. Austen herself was self-described as being “on the shelf” and would intimately know the thoughts and feelings of one pathetically consigned by others to being a spinster. Her older sister Cassandra was pledged in marriage to a man who was too poor to marry. Like Wentworth, he went to sea to make his fortune only to succumb to a yellow fever epidemic. Cassandra thereafter committed herself to a life of celibacy, accompanied by her devoted sister Jane.  

Perhaps the most revealing insight into Anne Elliott’s soul comes near the end of the story, when Anne attempts to explain to Wentworth the reason behind her rejection of his initial proposal eight years prior. She feels she made the right decision, not because her friend’s advice was correct (which it wasn’t), but because of the honor she afforded her friend by accepting the advice. Fortunately this is a novel and Anne’s resolve to endure whatever unhappiness may well have come from her decision was rewarded by story’s end.

Sadly, in real life, there was no Captain Wentworth for Jane Austen.

Diligence

We are now onto the second of the so-called Heavenly virtues as described in the book On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. The format of her book and the model on which these messages are based is to provide a survey of thought on the meaning of a virtue matched to a well-known literary work as a form of illustration.

This week we are considering the virtue of diligence. Professor Prior provides the lineage of the word, beginning with its Latin origin concerning something or someone of great value, highly esteemed or dearly loved. Later it came to describe an attentive nature or carefulness in one’s behavior. Today we are more likely to use diligence to indicate a “steady, persistent effort.” The professor’s literary choice to help illustrate this virtue is John Bunyan’s 1678 novel The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The original publication had a subtitle to help us understand that the progress indicated in the title was “from this world to that which is to come,” making heaven the ultimate destination of an otherwise earthly journey. Prior’s use of this work is focused solely on part one of Bunyan’s final manuscript, covering the solitary pilgrimage made by a man known as Christian. Part two, published in 1684, was something of a sequel, following the similar journey made by Christian’s wife, Christiana, their four sons and a female companion named Mercy.

The Pilgrim’s Progress part one is regarded as the most often read English language book. It is an allegory, richly populated by people and places whose names convey their character. The protagonist, Christian, is often dissuaded in his travels by characters such as Obstinate, Pliable, Timorous, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, while being aided in his trek by Faithful, Goodwill, Hopeful, Evangelist and the shining ones. His heavenly destination is called the Celestial City, but to get there he must avoid the snares of the Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle.

For Prior, Christian’s arrival in the Celestial City is proof of his diligence. My own assessment of Christian, however, is that he perseveres. A diligent person is certainly not perfect, but is less likely to deviate from the prescribed path than someone else lacking in this virtue. Christian strays often. By contrast a diligent person’s attention to detail restricts the parameters within which they make decisions, no matter how difficult or unappealing the consequence of their decisions may be. They tend to tread a path that is straight and narrow.

Bunyan’s character is intentionally flawed so that through Christian’s ordeal the author can showcase the types of trials and tribulations a person of faith will encounter in life. Christian’s waywardness and occasional entrapment requires the need for redemption through the help of others. He lacks the kind of discernment one associates with the virtue of diligence. However, he does persevere despite his faults, exemplifying the grace of God available to those who believe.

You can see that I retain and emphasize two early qualities ascribed to a diligent person; an attention to detail and a careful ordering of one’s behavior. This can no doubt be attributed to my professional training as an accountant and more specifically to my role as an auditor. Success in this field reveals a person’s commitment to a goal of discovery, where evidence is pursued, tested, evaluated and thereby used as the basis for reaching conclusions about the financial health of an organization. Experience leads me to believe that a diligent person has a goal to which they commit and faithfully pursue. The goal is not always attained, hence the validity of a comment Prior makes in her text that “Although applied to a goal, diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Diligence describes the quality of the effort. An engaging story will typically contain a gratifying ending to reward the quality of any pilgrimage.

My own offering for a literary work demonstrating the virtue of diligence is the Charles Portis 1968 novel, True Grit. While the grit in the title refers to the character of Sheriff Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross, the novel’s narrator and chief protagonist, is the personification of diligence. She is on a mission to bring her father’s killer to trial and throughout her own pilgrimage, the fourteen year old exhibits the qualities of a diligent person.

She introduces herself at the outset of her narrative as her father’s bookkeeper, a role that gives us an early indication of her attention to detail and the very careful ordering of her behavior. This image is emphasized later when Mattie finally encounters Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, and he identifies her as Little Mattie, the bookkeeper.

Her tenacious horse trading and thrift at the boarding house in Fort Smith, Arkansas are presented in a humorous light, as is her negotiations with Cogburn about a fair wage in bringing Chaney to justice. Mattie is as dogged in her recital of the terms of their deal throughout the length of the narrative as she is in reminding Cogburn, as well as a Texas Ranger named LaBouef, about the goal; bringing Chaney back to Fort Smith to stand trial in Hanging Judge Parker’s court for the murder of her father. Her intense focus runs counter to LaBeouf’s insistence that Chaney be taken to Texas to stand trial for killing a state senator and his dog. Mattie’s contemptuous response is that Chaney will not hang for killing a dog.

Technically, Mattie fails in her quest. Chaney is killed but not by hanging. The just result she sought is denied her. Prior’s insight bears repeating that “diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Mattie’s diligence is unquestionable and that is the point to be made, at least as far as this message goes. A diligent person is recognizable by an unwavering commitment to a goal, faithfully pursued through one’s attention to detail, which subsequently guides all other well-ordered and compliant actions.

Outcomes may vary and in this life they likely will.

Chastity

This week we start on the third and final segment in our discussion about virtue. Segment one was the Cardinal or hinge virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Courage. They were highly regarded in ancient Greek philosophy as essential for there to be a stable society.

Segment two centered solely on a statement made by the Apostle Paul, from which were derived the Theological virtues: Faith Hope and Love.

Segment three is about the Heavenly virtues of which there are seven. Two of these have already been covered, Temperance and Love. The remaining five are Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness and Humility.

The provenance of the seven Heavenly virtues goes back to an attempt by the early Christian teachers to identify the counterpoint to the proposed seven deadly sins. Since both lists have morphed somewhat over the centuries, the connection between the two is a little tenuous. But seven is a significant somewhat holy number in the Christian faith as reflected in the biblical references to the seven-fold spirit of God. So to retain this final collection of virtues is a virtuous gesture within itself.

We are following the lead of Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. In her book On Reading Well, her method of encouraging us to think deeply about the subject of virtue is to match a prominent literary work to the speculative discussions by philosophers and theologians. The theory is that in literature we can learn about virtue from those fictional practitioners and profligates, who inhabit some of the best works of prose. This means we do not have to behave in like manner in order to prove a point; a gracious allowance when reading about a profligate protagonist – of whom there are many.

Professor Prior’s choice of Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, as the source for enhancing our understanding on the nature and value of chastity once again puts me at a disadvantage for having never read the book. But just gleaning a few details from Prior’s recap and accessing the internet’s version of Cliff Notes (aka Wikipedia) I am inclined to think that Wharton was a master of innuendo. She was a writer during America’s Gilded Age and thereby required to suggest but not show the full frontal impact of something like the antithesis of chastity, which is lust.

Lust is the topic at hand in Wharton’s story, cleverly introduced by an engaging scene of a dance held in a church, normally considered a place of worship. Jane Austen demonstrated the power of the dance as a social gambit in a restrictive society in her novel Pride and Prejudice. Couples who are limited in their personal contacts with others can experience a reverie in close, physically active proximity when they join in the dance.

Ethan Frome is no more than a casual observer of this joyous ritual, looking through a church window. He is pictured as the consummate outsider looking in. Even though he is not a direct participant in the dance, he is still aroused by the mere sight of a young woman’s youthful movements; a sensation which is irreparably enhanced by her wardrobe malfunction; her red scarf slips back on her head. How unfortunate it is for the married Frome to find himself sensually ensnared by such an unintended gesture. Wharton, however, is very savvy for using the juxtaposition of a woman’s pleasing movements, the color red, and a casual slip of a garment. The man is hooked.

Wharton laces her story with another subtle metaphor to help us read into the lives unwinding in her text. The young woman who is the object of Frome’s male gaze is Mattie Silver and silver – as everyone knows – is regarded as a very valuable commodity. Men of greed have done terrible things to possess it and Frome, though Wharton gives us reason to feel sorry for him, is revealed to be just such a scoundrel. The greed of lust compels him to find ways to gain Mattie’s favorable attention until his enticement of Mattie to join him in his romantic fantasy proves to be just as effective and just as tragic as the words spoken by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Frome’s hypochondriac wife forces him to send Mattie, their housemaid, away. Instead the yet to be consummated affair ends with a suicide pact of dubious credibility on Wharton’s part. It puts me in mind of how Alfred Hitchcock got Tippi Hedren to trap herself in a room filled with a flock of vengeful birds. She pays the price for her stupidity. So do Frome and Mattie, who agree to ride a sled down a hill and into an elm tree with the intent of dying in each other’s embrace. The reality is that Frome is maimed in the collision and Mattie crippled.

The story ends with Mattie staying with the Fromes; confined actually. Literally there will be no more dances to arouse poor Etan Frome, who is confined himself by the responsibility of now caring for two complaining women.

Ethan Frome is a framed narrative. This is a technique where the main part of the story (told in the usual third person narrative) is framed within an opening and closing first-person account by a disinterested character. Using this format allowed Wharton to spring her surprise ending on her readers. It makes her story, like those of her fellow New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorn, Twilight Zone worthy. We only need to cue the music and invoke the spirit of Rod Serling to bring his classic opening and closing narration to support Wharton’s clever plot twist and drive home the novel’s moral assessment regarding the evils of lust.

The lack of a more positive statement about the value of chastity places me once again at odds with the good professor’s choice, since I do better seeing virtue in action rather than extrapolating its value from someone else’s decadent behavior. That’s too much mental work for the likes of me. I recognize the problem of portraying chastity in a positive light, even in a fictional context, since our culture typically labels any adherent as a goody two-shoes. Life’s a bitch that way.

Chastity is also considered to be synonymous with virginity, limiting the concept to one’s sexual activity or lack thereof. It takes on a greater depth when one considers that chastity has a twin; modesty. A chaste life is one of modest reserve in all aspects and reveals itself in one’s appearance, which eschews glamour, and behavior, which rejects the desire for generating attention by living one’s life as a public spectacle. The subtle result is a life well-lived for the benefit of others.

Furthermore, chastity, if regarded at all, is likely thought of as a feminine trait. Fictional characters like Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 tale of the same name or Agnes Wickfield in Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield are credible examples of those whose chaste behavior reveals a commitment to the wellbeing of others. Men need not despair, however, at the thought that we must forever be portrayed in fiction and in life as lustful interlopers into the otherwise happy existence of women. We have as our champion of virtue James Fennimore Cooper’s action hero Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales.

Cooper’s 1841 novel, The Deerslayer, was the last of the five Leatherstocking novels to be written but the first in the chronological sequence of Bumppo’s adventures. Today we would call it a prequel. A young Natty Bumppo appears on the scene already famous for his long rifle skills, hence his sobriquet and source of the book’s title of Deerslayer. A more mature Bumppo is better known as Hawkeye from the previously published and more popular novel The Last of the Mohicans.

Cooper gives more depth to Bumppo in The Deerslayer than in his previous novels by giving him more in the way of emotional conflicts to resolve in addition to the struggles to defeat the bad guys in mortal combat. One of his issues is his personal encounter with killing his first human being. Another is more to the point of this message, how to respond to the proposal in marriage proffered by the beautiful Judith Hutter. Beyond her beauty, Hutter is intelligent, courageous, devoted to her younger sister and loyal to her friends. The sticking point for the Deerslayer: Hutter’s reputation is one of amorous indiscretions openly committed among the officers she meets in the then frontier of upstate New York.

Hutter sees in Bumppo a person of many virtues, which she overly romanticizes by referring to Bumppo as her hoped for Adam to help her start a new life in the frontier’s semblance of Eden. Bumppo’s keen eye serves him well in this instance as he sees in Hutter’s overture a doubtful fantasy, something Mattie Silver could not discern in Ethan Frome’s enticements. More importantly for us, Bumppo cannot bring himself to compromise his Moravian Christian beliefs for the sake of embracing someone, whose physical beauty is compelling but insufficient to seduce in light of a staunch character. Chastity prevails.

It is naive to think that we can be so morally pure that we cannot be tempted. Beauty is an attraction we cannot deny. Lust, however, is the perpetual desire for an illicit pleasure. Ethan Frome shows us that lust can be ignited in an instant but takes time to be fulfilled. To experience a moment’s pleasure at the sight of someone who meets our personal beauty requirements is normal. The relentless stalking of the object of our obsession, no matter how stealthily done, is lust on the make. It is greed for a commodity, which can only render the pursuer morally bankrupt.

Chastity is selfless, seeking another’s good. And clothed with modesty its dance moves more gracious to the soul of both the dancer and the observer.