Yet, fond as I shall ever be of them, I don’t want to speak about my own teachers here; rather, I want to speak about a conversation that I had with my friend, the philologist, whose conferences, if you read this blog regularly, you already know I sometimes crash as a fifth-wheel pseudo-philologist, as a poetaster is to a poet. That self-same philologist is in fact also a teacher (actually a professor) but as he is my contemporary and friend, I have, of course, never taken a class with him. That said, he and I often consult about his courses, for he is, I would say, a dedicated teacher. He is also a dedicated educator. He spends a lot of time educating his students, whether in or out of the classroom. Yet he is also a teacher, and as such he and I, as I was saying, converse about the material for the class, the author he might be reading and, especially this time of year, about the content of his syllabus.
Recently the question of educational motivation came up: how can he motivate his less-than-excited students to grasp not only the content of his course but, more particularly, their entire education? He explained it this way: he is more concerned about the student understanding why in fact he or she has come to college at all than the details of Ciceronian rhetoric—though he is concerned with that, especially these days when students seem to come to university so ill-prepared rhetorically and historically.
Thus it was that we sat on his porch, enjoying a glass of wine and conversing about whether it would be a good idea to mention something in the syllabus—an aspirational statement beyond the normal “Goal of the Course” but filed under that heading on the syllabus—or whether it is better to let that emerge on its own during the course. He has, in the past, always chosen the latter option. He doesn’t believe in what he calls “over-leading” the student (which he insists is akin to “leading the witness” in a court of law). He wants the students’ love of learning to emerge organically, naturally. But this time I tried to convince him: “Put in something aspirational, just to get them thinking of your unstated goal right off the bat.”
We debated a long time. I suggested he insert something like, “The goal of this course is to master Ciceronian style and understand better the context of the speech (for he is reading a Ciceronian speech with the class in Latin) and also to better understand what a real education means, for enlarges upon the importance of the education of Caelius [the person focused on in Cicero’s speech] as a vital component of his defense.” Of course, he immediately corrected the split infinitive which I had put in only to distract him, for I knew he would fixate on the grammar rather than what I was proposing.
As things are, however, I am not sure what he will do. I hope he puts in some kind of aspirational statement, for it would be a terrible thing, I think, to go to college just to get a job and not an education. Isn’t education, after all, what one goes off to the university to get? I think that it is an employment agency, after all, that one actually goes to when seeking a job: “the goal of this agency is to get you a job.” Yes, that fits. “The goal of this course is to prevent you from being a driveling know-nothing.” Yes, that’s what he needs to add. I think I’ve got it now.
I found myself confused by his reference to the “sword over his head.” There I was, at a gathering of some of the brightest stars of any university, enjoying a glass of red under the shade of a pavilion just a few miles from a major university’s campus, discussing, of all things, their core curriculum changes. I found it surprising that I, a mere novelist, should be invited. “Perhaps I have been summoned to this elegant wine-and-cheese gathering,” I ruminated, “because they know I care about liberal education. Or perhaps because I blog regularly?” I wasn’t sure.
It did not matter to me, as I knew that I should relish my conversations with them all—historians (for there was more than one there), a physicist, an art historian and, best of all, literature professors, for again there was more than one professor of literature. They were there to consider how the changes to their new core proposal would be implemented.
I was skeptical, of course, about trimming too much out of their core, and some of them at least seemed to value my opinion. I cautioned them about removing history courses—as our country’s recent leaders, for example, seem to have forgotten to heed the lessons of history—and non-English language study as we live in a world where understanding other cultures through the way they think (i.e. their languages) is becoming more and more important. (Perhaps you will recall from previous blogs that I have a close friend who is a philologist and I often accompany him to conferences on literature, art or even linguistics.) I suppose that association alone has biased me a bit, since many of those conferences are in Europe. Fortunately, as do I, my friend can speak Italian, French, and German, so he gets around there pretty well. But to return to the wine-and-cheese affair, one conversation jumped out at me, and one phrase in it alone, to my mind, made the case all by itself for a robust liberal education.
That conversation was with a particular professor, whose department I don’t recall, and the phrase, or rather its particularly strange, in this case, application was “the sword over my head.” He said, specifically, “Well, when it comes to education these days, I really have the sword over my head.” The context did not in and of itself clarify the reference. He was speaking about how difficult it is to deal with students, and how parents complain. And he seemed to mean he was getting sick of dealing with virtually every aspect of the non-research bits of his job, i.e. teaching and all that involves, from disgruntled students to parents whose angry telephone calls he regularly receives to the occasional late homework or make-up test. It would all be easier, he seemed to say, if there were just less onerous requirements, a trimmer core that would give students more choice about what they were taking. The sword, he said, was over his head. And he seemed to say this last bit rather fiercely.
I wandered off to another part of the pavilion, sipping on my Merlot. “What did this man mean?” I thought to myself. He seemed a reasonable chap, friendly and smiling, but then he closed his soliloquy on how a trimmer core would benefit most professors and students with that strange turn of phrase. Did he mean he had the sword poised over his head aggressively, like a Samurai warrior or Luke Skywalker fighting with Darth Vader?Or perhaps he meant he was holding it high, like Vuchetich and Nikitin’s grand statue of the Russian motherland perched above Volgograd, the city formally known as Stalingrad.
Well, I thought, he couldn’t possibly mean he was like Luke Skywalker. That was simply too aggressive for dealing with a parent, however disgruntled he or she might be. No, that simply wouldn’t work. But the image of the Russian motherland, perhaps that’s all he meant. Perhaps he just meant that he held aloft, via his PhD or his publication record or his status within his department, a symbol of power, a symbol that he was in control and that the parent or student or even disgruntled colleague or telemarketer who happened to call his work extension (for that, too, had come up in another conversation) would have to recognize that he, like the Russian troops who had boldly fought for Stalingrad, would not give up. He held the sword above his head, he was indeed on par with the Родина-мать!
But surely, I thought, as I helped myself to a second (plastic) glass of Merlot, this is not what he meant. And then it donned on me, perhaps because I was thinking of my philological friend and his conferences, that this professor of whatever it was, must have meant, for all his bravado, the sword of Damocles. Yet he had forgotten or perhaps had never known the name of Damocles. Had he read Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, I wondered, in whose fifth book the story is featured? Surely that’s what he meant. He knew of the story, but he didn’t know the story. He knew there was some story about a sword being over somebody’s head, but he didn’t know whose, he didn’t know how it happened, or even from what culture this marvelous story comes. “Did he even know who Cicero was or when he lived?” I mused.
Or did I in fact muse? Rather, I think, I was brooding. And that’s when one more thing donned on me. He was living proof of why preserving a robust liberal education is paramount. Yes, he had a PhD; yes, he was a college professor; but had he been liberally educated? He was his own counter-example. No, of course, a liberal education won’t enable everyone to cite every story correctly or catch all and any reference to each and every allusion. But it enables us to ask questions, formulate them better and more pointedly. It won’t remove the sword of Damocles from above any of our heads, but it might just teach us how to speak better, write better and to comport ourselves better. It might just prepare us to converse better, whether over wine-and-cheese or in a courtroom or at business meeting in France. It might just prepare us for life, to handle its pressure, how to deal gently and deftly with our fellow human beings. It won’t solve any of life’s problems, but it equips us to deal with them better. How I hope those folks decide to keep the most vital of their core requirements in place, lest they unwittingly take a seat beneath Damocles’ sword.
 Cicero, TD 5.61: Certainly this very tyrant [Dionysius of Syracuse] made clear his opinion about how fortunate he had been. When one of his sycophantic followers, a certain Damocles, in conversation touched upon Dionysius’ prosperity, the majesty of his rule, the plentitude of his possessions, and his palace’s splendor, suggesting that there never had had been anyone more fortunate, Dionysius replied, “Well, Damocles, inasmuch as this life titillates you, do you wish to taste and experience my life and fortune? After Damocles indicated that he so desired, Dionysius ordered that the man be placed on a golden couch bedecked with a very beautiful woven tapestry, embellished with impressive works. … Yet Dionysius also ordered that amidst such luxury a gleaming sword, fastened by a horse’s hair from the ceiling, be lowered so that it dangled over that “lucky” man’s neck… Ultimately Damocles begged that tyrant to be allowed to depart as he no longer wished to be so fortunate. (My translation.)
Prominent on the Harvard Business Review’s website, one finds an article by James R. Bailey entitled, “The Difference between Good Leaders and Great Ones.” Now one should not quibble at the uncomfortable plural of the word “one” on display for all to see in the title; I confess that I myself have, on rare occasions, used that false plural, though never in such a conspicuous position, of course. Still, the article is worth perusing, if for no other reason than to contrast it with what great leadership actually is. Large stretches of that article sound about right in no small part because the entire article is partially true. If one were to think evenhandedly, one might conclude something along these lines: “a partial truth is better than no truth and certainly better than a lie. It’s better than evil. It’s an improvement on bad. At least it’s something that is practically complete, almost right, virtually true.”
But one would be wrong, for something can’t be “virtually true.” Truth is necessarily complete in and of itself. Partially right is wrong; practically complete is incomplete; virtually true is false. So I begin by suggesting that what the famed scholar James R. Bailey, the Hochberg Professor of Leadership Development at George Washington University’s School of Business, and coauthor of Handbook of Managerial and Organizational Wisdom, has written is, in fact, a mean sort of lie.
That expression “a partial truth is a mean sort of lie” (meaning, of course, an intentional partial truth) is penned in the back of the Bible that once belonged to my grandmother, Blanche Evans Jakes. After her death, I happened upon that old book, and I have never forgotten her personal notes scrawled within it. Yet if that saying sounds a bit pointed, even piquant, nevertheless that very piquancy is why, I suppose, I have never let it slip from my memory. And one must understand that in the phrase, “a mean sort of lie,” the word “mean” does not convey the sense of “belligerent” but rather “cheap,” “inferior.” In other words, partial truth fails even to measure up to being a clever lie. It’s a second-rate lie, one that is base, vulgar and vile.
Now you might be thinking that I’m being petulant. But I am not. Yet if not, why would I want to vilify the work of one James R. Bailey, work presumably so profound that it bedecks the HBR website? Well, vilify is a strong word, and I’m not out to do that. But I suppose the reason I am calling attention to his work is because his article contains a number of facile suppositions that, unexamined, might tame the docile reader into submission, causing the reader to believe that, just because that professor has an elevated position, he must be right. Dr. Bailey writes:
“It’s tempting to think leadership … follows a continuum, one anchored by bad and great, with good somewhere in between. … I dispute … the stubborn resolve that great and good are points along the same stream. That just isn’t so. Great leadership and good leadership have distinctly different characteristics and paths. … great is a force. True, great also means “excellent,” but that is not its primary meaning. As for “good,” we usually reference morality, virtue, and ethics — “a good person” or “a good decision.” Good can refer to the quality of something — contrasted against the commonly understood opposite, bad — but in this context good refers to the direction in which behavior is compelled. Great leadership is powerful, dominating, often overwhelming. It can sweep people along through sheer animation. Great leadership excites, energizes, and stimulates. It’s a rousing call, shocking complacency and inertia into action. It’s one of the most potent pulls in human history, and as such accounts for much of humanity’s progress, as well as its suffering. While it ignites collective action and stirs passion, its direction depends largely on those that wield its power. Great has no inherent moral compass, and thus its unpredictable potency can just as easily be put toward pugilistic and peaceful purposes.”
According to Professor Bailey’s argument, someone like Adolf Hitler could be classified as a great leader. But, do we really want to say that? Can you imagine yourself standing there at a cocktail party with a glass in your hand and say to group of your friends, “Well, you know, Adolf Hitler really was a great leader.” And then when everyone looks aghast, perhaps you could add, “Well, I got that off the Harvard Business School’s website.”
Then if you’re remarkably fortunate, an equally hoodwinked interlocutor might say, “Well, yes, I saw that article! Indeed, according to—was it someone named Bailey’s?—definition, I think you have a point.” But in truth, it is very unlikely that any of the ones (sic) at that party will be aware of Professor Bailey’s droll redefinition of the almost trite expression “great leadership,” his prominent place on the Harvard Business Review’s website notwithstanding.
For he has forgotten that good and great, though not technically on a continuum, are contiguous ideas in English. “Great” is related, of course, to the German gross, meaning large, derived from the Indo-European root *ghreu- which seems to have meant “grind” (though according to the OED that etymology is far from certain). One thinks of great as referring to size when, for example, one thinks of an appellation such as the Great Lakes or World War I as the “Great War,” or the description of St. Mary from the second chapter of Luke, “… Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea … 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”
Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the word has primarily meant “excellent.” Now Bailey is right to note that good and great are not the same idea. Good’s comparative is better; great’s is greater. Yet both adjectives currently imply something decent, something right, something noble, not something simply powerful. In fact, I cannot think of a sentence in which great could be substituted for “shocking complacency and inertia into action,” to use Bailey’s words cited above. No I think Dr. Bailey is simply wrong. Hitler was not great, nor can any leader be who, to use Bailey’s words again, has “no… moral compass.”
But leadership can be a neutral term, and maybe that’s what Dr. Bailey really meant to say. Leadership can be good or bad. A good leader will be driven by decency, will be compelled to action by a sense of the divine imprimatur, whether he or she knows it or not. That gracious mark on the good leader’s life will evidence itself in a profound moral sense, a desire for justice not for self-aggrandizement. When one finds a good leader, it is rare. When one finds a great leader, one who has such characteristics to an even greater degree than the good leader, that is rarer still.
And while it is obvious that no great leader will be perfect or have an unblemished record of leadership, one can quite often sense a great leader when one hears that person speak or reads what he or she has written. One might disagree with that leader’s political vantage point, but one should, nonetheless, sense that greatness from his or her palpable courage, thoughtful command of words and principled execution of deeds. One might here think of presidents such as Lincoln or Kennedy, or famous figures such as St. Teresa of Calcutta or Harriet Tubman. And there are many others, from Queen Victoria to John Paul II, from Pericles of Athens to Mahatma Ghandi. (Notably not on the list are Pol Pot, Josef Stalin, or Adolf Hitler).
So it would seem that leadership can be either good, great, or bad, and greatness, pace Dr. Bailey, cannot be bad or good. One portion of Plutarch’s description of Cicero, of which I here in closing render but a brief snippet, sums up well the portrait of a truly great leader:
“For [Cicero] especially revealed to the Romans how much pleasure rhetoric adds to the good, and that justice is unassailable if it is rightly spoken, and further that it is incumbent upon one engaging in the business of civic leadership ever to choose the good instead of merely the agreeable, and by his words to remove the bothersome from that which is advantageous.” (Life of Cicero, 13.1)
I have a good and richly devout friend who says no one but God can really change anyone. All change, he insists, must come from on high. Well, at some deep, theological level, he may just be right. But in the world in which I live, I’ve seen a lot of things help one at least to see the need for change, and therefore, I think, it may be useful to look carefully at my friend’s formula. Maybe there are a lot of different ways that God changes people. Could he do so through other people, especially those involved in one’s life in certain key ways?
Long ago (in 1372, to be precise) Boccaccio wrote to Petrarch, suggesting that he had been put on the right path by none other than Petrarch himself. That path, Boccaccio states, is the “ancient path” that Petrarch had traced out with so much vigor and talent that “he could not be stopped by any obstacle or even by the difficult road.” Petrarch was, in fact, Boccaccio’s teacher. And what Boccaccio had learned from Petrarch was presumably the same thing that students of another teacher of rhetoric, a millennium earlier, had tried to teach his students: the path of virtue, a path opened by rhetoric and persuasion. That ancient teacher was named Cicero, the Roman statesman/philosopher par excellence. But more on him another time.
For now, I would prefer to return to my friend’s central premise, namely that God alone can transform someone. Again, that may be true in a theological sense, but in a practical sense, I think I agree with Boccaccio: education can, and in particular a great teacher—and that teacher need not be a Petrarch or a Cicero—has a peculiar role in that transformational work. Thus, what is known as a liberal arts education can produce some startling and quite valuable results.
Indeed, I would say that the most valuable thing I own is not my great-great-grandmother Lucy Hughes Jones’ tea pot or her not-quite-Welsh (really Bavarian) cheese plate or even the old black trunk that transported them both, but my liberal education. At Dickinson I read Milton for the first time, and he taught me to understand what faith was long before I had faith to speak of. Plato led me to think about the best things—he called them forms—and he did so in his original Greek. Shakespeare taught me how to laugh, to care, to love and even to speak and write more dexterously. And Richard Wright made me at least a bit more aware of what it is like to be scared, make mistakes, and to understand such fear and error by looking through a poignantly pathetic character’s eyes.
And these were just the literature classes. I took an anthropology class, too, that educated me as to how poor so many folks in this world are. Subsequently, I would myself go to China and, later, Ethiopia and understand in person what I had read about and studied years before. And history, what can I say about that? I learned to love history from a great professor named Leon Fitts. He could bring Rome alive like no other. For another history class, I wrote a paper about my family’s history. Was that the prototype of The Curious Autobiography? I’m not sure, but I think it may have had something ultimately to do with the scribbling down of that collection of tales. And Latin. Where do I start? Where do I end? If in the manner of the forty-third verse of Virgil’s second Georgic, I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths, could I ever truly explain?
What changed me the most? While I agree with my devout friend that encountering and wrestling with God is the most transformative moment one can have, one of the most important ways change has come to me is through the echoing ideas that found a permanent seat in my mind during my college years. In any case, I know the answer to a question a bit different from the one that opens this paragraph. That question is simply what the most valuable thing I own might be. I can say without hesitation that that most prized thing is my liberal arts education—not the degree itself but the degree to which it changed the way I think—for by it I learned to embark on Boccaccio’s (or was it Petrarch’s?) ancient path and to appreciate life’s journey along the difficult road.
“You see,” I recall him saying as we stood on the dank stairwell of Dickinson College’s Old East Building located at the northeast end of the campus mall, “It is very simple, pal. Either there is one or there is not.” The one he was referring to is, of course, God. Dr. Philip Lockhart had the uniquely Presbyterian knack—to wit, the Westminster Shorter Catechism—of taking the difficult and reducing it to something highly condensed and yet entirely comprehensible.
In response to my query based on the conversation that Dr. Lockhart and I had on that old stairway, Roz replied, “Yes, of course, yes, yes, of course I do.” Roz, along with her husband and nephew, just happened to sit next to me in an airport restaurant in Toronto, where I spent a large portion of the day waiting for my sempiternally delayed plane. Indeed her response was enthusiastic: “I am a Jew. Of course I believe in God.”
I had only asked that basic theological question because I was offering her a slice of the story of Elaine Jakes, a story quite improbable—well, you know if you’ve read the book. For the fact that Elaine had been, mostly at different times, a Jew, Chinese, and African American reveals how each individual vignette elicits the annoying question as to whether the sum of the details of her story could just be coincidence. Frankly, it is just easier to explain if the person you’re telling it to begins with at least a hint of faith—in Roz’ case a good bit more than a hint.
Thus could I relay more confidently one of those improbable stories from the book, and thus did she smile, even chuckle, with amusement and delight. “But how did it happen that you became a writer?” she asked. “How could you decide to become a writer and study Greek and Latin, no less, in college? These are not highly marketable subjects.”
“That same professor,” I said,” Phil Lockhart, directed me to listen to the voices of the past, to hear what the ancients could tell me not only about history and art and battles but about honor, and justice, and bravery. ‘The words of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil,’ old Dr. Lockhart so sagely said, ‘resound eternally. Learn Latin and Greek so that you can press your ear to the pane of glass and hear them for yourself.’ And he was right, of course. Dr. Lockhart was, like my mother, always right.”
Roz, a lawyer by trade raising a son of her own, was astounded, “So a teacher, a single teacher made such a big impact on you?”
“Yes,” I said, “and so did and still do the voices he referred to that I was able to hear through the glass pane. I can still hear Dr. Lockhart’s voice as if it were yesterday. And I learned enough Greek and Latin in college to begin to hear those other, older voices pretty well.”
“But how did you happen to take Latin or Greek in the first place?”
“Well, this is the part that requires some measure of the faith we spoke of earlier, for it, too, involves an improbable string of coincidences. I wound up in Latin simply because on one solitary evening no less than three people—an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brother whose name escapes me, a future college president named Chris Reber, and his roommate, Russ Fry, if I am recalling his name correctly after so many years, all told me to take Latin instead of waiting a semester for a spot in French to open up. ‘The prof is great,’ they all said independently of one another; ‘You simply have to take Latin!’ or something to that effect.”
And that prof was, of course, none other than Phil Lockhart. “He and the voices behind the pane of glass,” I continued, “all left quite an impression on me, ever directing me to higher moral ground, better thoughts, nobler action. Plato taught me something like faith, Cicero, honor, and Virgil, compassion, I think. Perhaps, Virgil taught me a bit more than just compassion; perhaps they all taught me more than those solitary ideals. And Dr. Lockhart …,” I paused, “taught me not only how to read them and understand their words but also how to write and speak and think.”
“I wish my son would have such a teacher and experience of college.”
“I hope,” I said, “that he does, too. I hope that he gets a chance to hear the voices behind the pane.”
“I wish I could have that kind of education myself,” she added. “Where can I learn something of this? Do you have a podcast?”
I think it was Roz who asked about the podcast—or was it the woman sitting next to me on the plane? In any case, it was now twice in one day that someone had asked me this question, for at breakfast Marci, a kind woman from Pennsylvania staying at our lovely bed and breakfast in Toronto (Elegant Cabbagetown), had asked the same question.
“Alas, no, but I think that The Curious Autobiography tells a lot of the story and can direct you toward some of the ideas and ideals I spoke of earlier.”
“I will buy it and read it!” Roz said enthusiastically.
Oddly enough, Marci had said the same thing at breakfast. Marci and Roz, if you are reading this now, I hope you can hear Elaine’s voice behind the glass. Her ideas and even her perception of life are built upon the great thoughts of the past. She is there, right now, just beyond the windowpane, sharing a pot of tea with Dr. Lockhart. Unless I am mistaken, it just may be that Cicero or Plato is sitting there with them.
Somewhere in central Texas there is, at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s streets, a place. Its name is My Brother’s Keeper, but those who stay there just call it BK, for short. There’s nothing fancy about the name or the place, or St. Mary’s or St. John’s, for that matter. Though I did not know it as I drove my old Ford in that direction, I had come there that evening to make friends.
BK’s furnishings are Spartan. There are not-very-comfortable looking bunk beds in rooms holding eight or perhaps ten people for a night’s stay. A narrow hallway with chipping paint. A small workroom; a recreational room, smaller yet; in back, a patio with a view of the sunset, for I have come just a few minutes before sunset. In the lobby, I sign in and chat with the staff, Brittany and Dane. But I am not here to hear Brittany’s or Dane’s stories but to tell one, so I thought at the time. At check-in I make a couple of jokes; they laugh. Then, of course, I quip awkwardly about being of Welsh descent. (I don’t know why I do that, since no one in Texas understands Welsh references: I invariably get a strange look.)
Dane writes you in; Brittany, as if performing a magic ritual, gently passes her weapon-detecting wand around your body. She smiles. Her love for all human beings is palpable; it shows in her eyes that twinkle, or rather glow with compassion and gentleness. Neither she nor Dane are dressed like the formal wardens of a proper institution; rather, they are dressed like college students. Perhaps they are just that; I never found out.
Several of the evening’s residents at BK and I go outside on the patio. Just moments before the sun begins its final downward course, I offer a brief spiritual reflection, one that will mention St. John but not St. Mary, even though here the streets cross. I have come to speak, in part, about why a friend of mine has told me that he no longer has faith. What is it that has made him lose his faith? It is the news, bad news about the economy, terrorism, the world going to hell in a hand basket—so he said at any rate. Just when faith could help him, he had walked away from it. He had lost his faith in people he told me. I had agreed with him that faith in people will disappoint; but there is another faith, it is at the place where Mary and John look up at a dying King, a King dying to make us princes and princesses. That story of love is what I wanted to tell because I was thinking perhaps they might well have, indeed are likely to have, faced challenges that could cause them to question their faith. I wanted to encourage them to keep going, keep walking in faith’s path even when what they see, what we all see, looks terribly gloomy and hopeless.
This is the story that I was trying stumblingly to share with only about fifteen of the many who had come to BK that evening. We’re out back, on that patio, where I speak about love, love from above, that allows us to keep faith. I warn against putting too much confidence in people. But I am speaking uncomfortably because I am doing so for an audience of people with no place to go, people of very little means. Some had come there, that evening, carrying their meager belongings in plastic grocery bags, while other brought a dilapidated suitcase from a thrift store, another a limping, tattered quasi-rolling board with one wheel broken—these are the lucky ones, for they have something to bring at all. I am uncomfortable not because they don’t have the American dream. Rather, I am uncomfortable because I do have it, and so much of it. Now someone might say, “That’s just white suburban guilt. Forget about that.” But even if that is the case, I cannot simply forget about it. I cannot because I am at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s and I am confronted not just with the idea of “the poor” but with people, real people, with names and faces. And stories.
David surprised me, for he had a library book, a thick one. “It’s the latest installment in the Divergent series. It’s a dystopia,” he said. Nineteen years old, he was perhaps the youngest in the shelter. He had been a student at a local college. His grandmother, who was raising him had gotten old, he said, too old to help him.
“Gone,” he said, “Not in my life. Never really were. My grandma raised us.”
“Yes there are three of us.”
“How did you wind up here?”
“Lost my job, couldn’t pay my rent. I was a student.”
“Yes, just taking my basics at a small two-year. I am hoping to be able to go on for a degree.”
Next to him sat Angelica, formerly a U.S. Coast Guard servicewoman, now looking for a job. She, too, was well read, and disclosed to me her hope of having a library in her own home one day.
“I just love books,” she said. I told her she might like the Curious Autobiography. I asked her a bit more about her story. After her discharge had followed her sister out west, she said—and by west she no doubt meant here, Texas—but her sister had problems, lost her job, was divorced, had to move back east (I think she said Florida) for a job. “Haven’t seen my sister for a long time now. I’ve got nobody here. I lost my job, lost my apartment. I’m trying to get a job. I’ve got an interview tomorrow.”
“I’ll say a prayer,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said and then she paused. After a moment, she told me about her time with the Coast Guard doing drug interdiction. “Drugs are ruining our country,” she said. I agreed.
After hearing more about the harrowing, quite heroic operations she had undertaken on the Coast Guard interceptors and about how a boom winch was mistaken by some drug runners for a Gatling gun, I could hardly stop myself from commenting, “You have an interesting story.
“I haven’t,” she added in closing, “had many friends to tell my story to.” And then, of course, I thought of Cicero, who not only extols friendship—for that is an obvious truism—but explains why it is vital for life. Part of that is the exchange of ideas, the sharing of virtues, and the telling of one’s stories to receptive ears. And that is just what Angelica and I, and David and I, and one or two others, too, were doing. And that is why I had come, for my message was encumbered by my lack of familiarity with that group, my own, tragically genuine, unfamiliarity with poverty. It had been a long time since I had been on the streets of Philadelphia going through garbage cans with Elaine Jakes—too many years. I’d forgotten what it means to be poor. Indeed, I had never really known, for even then, we had a place to sleep that was our own.
That is why I am especially glad to have made my way to the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s. I went thinking that I was doing so to tell a story, one based on love and kindness, on Psalm 14 and John 15 and to share reasons to keep faith even in the midst of life’s challenges and what can be the hardest of times. But I found out that in fact the real reason I was there was to listen to stories, those of David, of Angelica, and one or two others. These are my friends, and their story continues. I pray, too, that faith and friendship will be a part of those stories, and my own, until the final chapter of our books, until the last page is turned.
 The names of people and even the streets have been changed to allow each individual to maintain their anonymity and, on the off chance that I misremember any of the details, to allow them to keep their personal and unique stories for themselves. Here I reveal merely what I can recall from my visit last week, a glimpse of much more complex and rich lives. BK is a real place that truly helps/empowers the disenfranchised of central Texas to get back on their feet. If you wish to donate, please click on this link or simply purchase a Curious Autobiography t-shirt. All proceeds to go MWMW, of which BK is one ministry.
For Philadelphians, sometimes it seems like sports is the day’s top story. Sports are to many Philadelphians what politics or the arts, to some degree, are to New Yorkers. For this reason, perhaps, one of the more common features of the Philadelphia Inquirer or DailyNews, and for that matter any newspaper, are caricatures, cartoon distortions of well-known figures.
The idea is not new. The Romans would regularly depict political figures in cartoonish ways and even Leonardo Da Vinci playfully rendered such distorted pictures. In the PhiladelphiaInquirer, some of the cartoons are aimed at coaches—Chip Kelly was a favorite, and I am certain that the primary cartoonist of the Inquirer is lamenting the coaching change for that city’s football team (Eagles), even as the San Franciscans rejoice.
But why do we enjoy these satirical portraits? Because cartoons can take the edge off a situation as easily as they can, with clever social wit, put an edge on one. For example, a political cartoon, such as James Gillray’s portrait of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up a plum pudding meant to represent the world highlights playfully the pressing issues of the early nineteenth century. Pitt uses both a knife and a trident-shaped fork to suggest England’s maritime prowess, while the feather-chapeaued Napoleon cuts off a substantial portion of the globe representing Western Europe. This picture, in a way, simply stated the obvious—taking the edge off a moment of great concern globally. It is one of Gillay’s best-known pieces, and widely recognized as one of the best and most thoughtful caricatures ever made. Those of the coach in the Philadelphia Inquirer, not so much, at least not outside of Philadelphia proper.
But the point of this blog is not to review the history of caricatures or even to offer a few examples of them. Rather, it is simply this: I want to suggest that we now live in a world of distortions. Caricatures, once just funny pictures, now seem have jumped off the page into the real world. American politicians (and Americans in general) seem to me distorted, oversized, cartoonish. Either they are so cautious about what they say that they won’t dare use a word that could be in the least deemed offensive, or they will avail themselves of any word at all, even those that might have made George Carlin blush, if that were possible. They are either at the furthest limit of one side of the politically correct spectrum, or just the opposite, so far in the other direction that they could care less whom they might offend. The old-fashioned notion of decorum is gone, it is dead (or at least it seems so now) and it is no longer even talked about.
I imagine that even sophisticated college students may not know the word any more, unless they happen to take Latin. Yet infrequently nowadays do college students take the time to learn Latin, for it requires an inordinate amount of time. It forces you to slow down and think; it forces you to be thoughtful. And, well, I suppose with no Latin, there is no knowledge of what decus, decoris (n.) means; and then, no English derivative, decorum, or its deeper meaning. And without decorum you’re left with either extreme political correctness on the one side, or a complete dearth of it on the other.
Is it just me, or does that not seem to ring true to you, too? Now I’m not suggesting that there should be a “middle ground,” for there is no true middle ground between one kind of ridiculous mind game and another. But mightn’t there be something like moderation? There is a difference between these two ideas. Middle ground, at least the way that some folks construe it, is quite often seen as mere fence sitting, an attempt to hedge one’s bets or, worse yet, apathy. But moderation is something like decorum. I won’t have that extra piece of pie because it would be immoderate, indecorous. I won’t have that extra drink because by indulging in immoderate behavior I might say something unseemly. In other words, the notion of decorum, which must be undergirded with a healthy sense of shame, has been driven out precisely because people seem to feel no shame. Yet I leave aside the question as to whether we feel no shame because we are indecorous or whether we are indecorous because we feel no shame. Simply put, we do, and we are.
An example of what I mean can be seen in two different types of eating disorders. The anorexic will consume very little, so little that that person can but barely survive, and, in some very sad cases, die. They have put food out of their life as they are starving themselves. These I would liken to those who are extremely politically correct. They have a disorder: they believe that they have a right to put words or ideas out of their lives. They demand “safe spaces” because they are so easily offended. They must control their environment, and like the anorexic, they have very inadequate and distorted mental picture of themselves.
The indecorously opinionated person, who deliberately seeks to be crass and rude, is to my mind, something like the morbidly obese person. Such folks will respond aggressively to those who offend them. They will just keep heaping it on, like a person too heavy who takes an extra helping or two even when they know, deep down inside, that they should not. Yet even these comparisons are not fair, for neither the anorexic nor the morbidly obese person can be held accountable for their decisions, as they suffer from a mental disorder that had driven them to one of two extremes.
Rather the people of today’s cartoonish world, who are merely reflected in our politicians, are actually more like Pixee Fox, who has undergone surgeries to become cartoonishly slender or Homer Simpson (“literally” a cartoon character), who apparently in one of this most popular episodes of that television show purposely gains weight to achieve disability status.
Such, it seems to me, are we these days, and perhaps we should not be surprised if our politicians merely reflect us. Either we heap it on indecorously or, worse yet, we are offended on behalf of just about anyone in the world, especially those on behalf of whom it is politically expedient to be offended. Both are distortions of the real thing. That real thing, practically invisible these days, is the decorous, balanced, sensible and honorable person, who is simply polite and kind because it is the right thing to do, not because they want to curry favor or seem holier-than-thou (or more-PC-than-thou). They do not natter negatively on Twitter or prate provocatively on Pinterest. They do not seek merely to be confrontational or endlessly try to find something to be offended about in the name of social change. They do not conveniently revise history, judge those who have served our country courageously, or officiously attend upon the words of others hoping to find a way to pronounce condemnation and to vaunt their own moral superiority.
So few do precisely because we live in a cartoonish world. We even prefer movies rendered from comic books: stories set to the silver screen that have real actors behaving cartoonishly. We have self-distorted; we have become too thin with political correctness or too fat with crassness.
Decorum. That’s what we need now more than ever. And that is what we have always needed. What ever happened to the idea of two people from two different political parties actually respecting each other? Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, how I hope you cannot see from heaven what a cartoonish mess we’ve made of all this. As things are now, perhaps we should “beg for … a discreet patience / Of death, or of worse life.”
And now it is time for me to go back to the book I’m writing, and you to your morning coffee or walking your dog. If you’re reading your paper, do grin a bit at the caricatures of the coaches of sports teams, whether in the Inquirer or the Daily News. But be wary of the cover of the NY Daily News, that simply takes too much liberty in the name of freedom of the press, for you needn’t look too closely at such distortions, if you live in the same cartoonish world that I do. Distortion, cartoons, caricatures are not just in the papers anymore. They’re walking about everywhere. And they are everywhere because it seems that no one takes decorum seriously. For my part, I am setting out on this new year not worrying about micro-aggressions, or what the politically correct flavor of the day might be; conversely, I shan’t seek to be crass, crude or wanton simply to provoke. Rather I am taking the boring path, one that seeks moderation, decency, and old-fashioned decorum. “Yet never knows what course that light doth run; / So let me study that mine actions be / Worthy…” I don’t have to go to Rome or Greece or England to walk where Cicero, Aristotle, or even John Donne once trod. I can do it in my own neighborhood, my own home, with my own family and friends. That is the way of the old Latin word decus, decoris, which means “dignity.” Care to join me?