But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units—because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails. — John Steinbeck
When I was a little boy I stayed with my maternal grandmother a lot during the summers when school was out. She was a strong willed southern Baptist woman who’d been raised on a tobacco farm near Danville, Virginia. Every night before bedtime we’d say our prayers together. We asked for the forgiveness of our sins, we gave thanks for all the Lord had given us, and we asked that He bless our family and friends. As far as I knew the requests were granted. I went to bed refreshed and got up the next day ready to load up with sin.
Since then the list of those I’m thankful for and those needing to be blessed has expanded—the friends & family list, well, that may shorten depending on what day you ask me. But the thankful list, for the most part, has clearly expanded. It should have for all of us I’d hope. I’m very grateful for the military personnel who protect our nation, for the police officers who protect us from each other, for the nurses who care for us, for the teachers who educate and help shape our children, and for our political leaders—the very few, that is, who deserve a divine blessing rather than a voodoo curse.
But recently, while watching a TV commercial (below), I was reminded of those heroes—and they truly are—who I’ve always respected and admired but who don’t tend to make the nightly prayer list for most of us…and they deserve to. We’re all thankful for the doctors and nurses who care for us and our loved ones: they provide life saving surgeries and treatments and provide medications that cure disease and allow us to live normal, healthy, lives. But what about the people who actually researched, discovered, and designed these life saving procedures and medicines? Our healthcare comes from “providers.” But what about the Givers to Humanity…the research scientists?
Research scientists are the one’s who actually gave humanity those life saving procedures and medications. Without the discoveries of these research scientists the lives of millions would have been shortened and the quality of life for millions more would have been much worse. Just think of Edward Jenner, who discovered vaccinations. Because of him millions of lives have been spared suffering and a shortened life. Think of Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease. How about John Priestly’s discovery of anaesthetics! How about Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin. How many people have we all known that would have died early deaths without insulin? And of course there are so many scientific discoveries—medical or otherwise—that I could list that are things we now take for granted but are things that without our world would be a much less forgiving and hopeful place. And most of these life giving and improving discoveries come to us from those dedicated to scientific discovery—from research scientists.
They are heroes of humanity. Let us be mindful and give thanks for them.
Whenever we have a good snow I love to go for a walk in the woods. Walking in the wintry wonderland has always calmed and refreshed my soul. It’s a therapeutic activity. This love for walking in the snow started when I was a kid. We’d get a good snow and school would be cancelled, so I’d usually play in the snow half the day and then sometime after dark I’d go out and walk in the snow. I can still remember those nighttime walks in my old Virginia Beach, Virginia, neighborhood. No one would be out but me. There was a alluring peace and stillness in the thick, frosty air. It was a tranquilness and calm enticed by the gentle sounds of falling snow, the low roar of the wind in the tree tops, and that icey crunching sound my boots made as I stepped in the virgin snow.
Back then I didn’t have woods behind our house, but since 2001 I’ve had acres of woods to walk in when the snows came. And in some ways it’s even better now, because most of the time since, say, around 2014, I’ve had a little partner. My youngest son loves nature and, like his dad, loves to walk in the snowy woods. We had a good snow on January 5th and the temperatures have been frigid, so we’ve had 2 good days where we’ve taken some time to go for a walk together in the wintery woods. These walks with my son have been special. It’s just the two of us walking and talking and helping each other hike through the woods. “We’re a team, dad.” “Isn’t this beautiful dad.” “It’s so calm and peaceful out here, dad.” “Love you dad.”
These are walks I will always cherish and remember.
I remember Mark Twain using a shovel as symbolism to describe the need for checking one’s conscience—seeing if it’s still there under all the inevitable compromises and accumulating weight of life. I don’t remember the exact phrase, but roughly speaking it could be stated as follows:
I handed him a shovel.
“What’s this for?”
“Your conscience. Go dig for it.”
When I first read it I chuckled at the simplicity and blunt straightforwardness of it. I liked the metaphor. Twain was being humorous, of course. But humor can be one of the best ways—via the backdoor of laughter—to communicate a simple, but sometimes resisted, truth about ourselves or others. The idea of digging deep down to find the moral and spiritual ore is an archetype of the ages. Like most everyone I know, I have to find the symbolic shovel and go excavate from time to time…I hit rock periodically, break the damn thing, and have to get another shovel. They can break easy you see, and so the digging can be tiresome and frustrating and sometimes I throw the damn shovel in the bushes and storm off.
But, like all of us, I know the digging needs to be done, has to be done, from time to time, if I’m to keep my soul and not lose my way. And so I always keep a shovel near by and try never to let life’s weight get too burdensome before I go digging and clearing out the excess around the core.
Thumbing through a book of essays by Alfred North Whitehead, I came across these words I’d underlined years ago while reading the book:
Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.
Whitehead was defending, or praising really, the superior nature of classical education (reading classics) in shaping a strong moral character. It’s a model based, in large part, on the study of great people in history. Thomas Carlyle once said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea is that people primarily shape events and history by their actions. By studying the lives of renowned people we learn about “the evil that men do,*” or the nobility they can rise to, or the compromises they’ve made between these two extremes. We witness the subtleties of human personality. We see that life really isn’t, in large part, black or white but black and white. We learn just how human these great people actually were while also learning how they overcame many of the same difficulties we all face in spite of life’s head winds and the internal struggles of their own character. Through it all we can get a vision, even if not in perfect focus, of greatness in the human realm.
Whether people have an innate moral goodness or not is still debatable, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the idea that “the environment” has a big impact on the moral development of people. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have the research, but they knew this to be true by experience. So ancient students not only learned poetry, history, music, math and about the lives of great Greeks and Romans, but their masters (parents, teachers, or tutors) were responsible for modeling the moral ideal and enforcing the civic/moral behavior expected from a man or woman of a civilized society. And then as the students moved into society and began families and became active citizens, they were expected to uphold these civilized values and model them to the next generation and to their fellow citizens. At least that was the ideal. It’s a conceptual idea captured in the ancient Greek word paideia.
The classical ideal stayed with Western civilization for a long time and finally started breaking up in the early part of the 20th century. World wars and the need for advanced educations in science, math, and technology pushed aside (understandably) the studying of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course classical education didn’t die all together but evolved over the past century from strictly a study of the ancients to the study of the Great Books.
In this competitive world, students naturally seek educations that advance their job prospects, not necessarily their personal enrichment, civic awareness, or moral world view—of course, without a good degree of the latter, the former is likely to shrink as wealth and power pools around the few at the top…hmmm, kind of like it is now. No ideal is perfect and certainly western civilization has not been all good in practice or implication, but it’s an ideal or set of beliefs (moral and political) that have made the West the most advanced, most prosperous, freest collection of societies the world has ever known. This is worth remembering as we witness the growing attacks, and disillusionment with, its foundations from those on the far left and far right politically.
For Whitehead and the ancients, greatness, in the moral sphere, was mostly a product of social osmosis. If we are exposed to a “habitual vision of greatness,” via our readings (education) and life examples, there’s a good chance that vision will take hold and become a part of us. Regardless of whether anyone cares to read ancient texts or biographies in general, it’s a model with strong merit and, in my view, the best way to shape and lead a truly great society.
Our nation could really use some visions of greatness in both the realms of political and business leadership right now. It’s sorely lacking. We need leaders, especially in government, willing to sacrifice—like, say, an FDR—their own personal or class interests for the sake of others and the greater good of our society. But we’re seeing so much of the opposite right now. On the private sector side corporate statesmanship seems mostly gone and the tide of big business executive “greed,” the Gordon Gekkos of business (who now also run our government), have seized the moment, like an oligarchic plague over democratic Athens.
We don’t have the help of classical education as a shaper of our society anymore, and, of course, even if we had there’s no guarantee things would be any different. But we can still hope there’s a return to the ideal that modeling greatness matters at all levels of leadership in our society. We can still hope some people actually have and believe in a noble and dignified vision of society and are determined to live by it. We can still hope—and demand via our civic duty to vote!—that we have government leaders who model nobility in actions and words. We need leaders, in both business and government, with a noble vision that’s inclusive and dignified and not just one that’s all about their personal wealth, influence, or tribal loyalties. There are so many reasons Americans need a vision of greatness in Washington D.C. right now. But instead of a Cicero or a Marcus Aurelius we have a Nero…that tweets while the nation yearns.
The change starts with each of us. We need true visions of greatness. Let’s expect and demand a selfless and dignified vision of greatness from our government and business leaders. Our future, and that of our children, is at stake.