Post 3: Be Broken and Be Beautiful

In a commencement address that I gave to Trinity School in Falls Church, Virginia in May of 2017, I shared with graduates one of my favorite insights, one that I often urge about myself and those who work with me — “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” For this reason my next two blog posts will deal with the importance of understanding that we are all, as Immanuel Kant once described us, “broken timber.” Of course, we all try to improve, but it’s important to accept our limitations as they are. Mary DeTurris Poust, wrote beautifully about this in the National Catholic Reporter in February of 2014.

Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of several books on Catholic spirituality, including Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality. She blogs at www.notstrictlyspiritual.com.  Since she quotes Henri Nouwen in the first paragraph, let me share a little about him as well.  He was a Dutch Catholic priest who was a member of the faculty at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. Nouwen published some 39 books on spirituality and was named by Christian Century as the first choice of authors for Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy. I had the opportunity to hear him preach once when I was at Notre Dame on business.

Poust writes:

Our brokenness is truly ours. Nobody else’s. Our brokenness is as unique as our chosenness and our blessedness,” writes Henri Nouwen in Life of the Beloved. “As fearsome as it may sound, as the Beloved ones, we are called to claim our unique brokenness, just as we have to claim our unique chosenness and our unique blessedness.”

Can we begin to see our brokenness as a blessing rather than a curse, a beauty mark rather than a scar? It can happen only when we fully place ourselves in God’s hands and accept once and for all that we are indeed wonderfully made, even with – or maybe because of – our flaws and weaknesses, our wrinkles and quirks, our sins and struggles. God doesn’t love us only after we are “fixed.” God loves us into being and loves us through our imperfections, patiently waiting for us to climb on board and revel in that gift. Unfortunately, we are too often caught up in the mirage of wholeness, the mistaken belief that a perfect outer shell will make us more lovable.

We are so busy spinning our wheels in an effort to become shiny and unblemished to the outside world that we miss the still, small voice urging us on from the inside, the Spirit beckoning us to stop spinning, stop judging, and rest in the arms of God exactly as we are at this moment, knowing we are loved perfectly despite our imperfections.

We are all shattered in one way or another. We are all incomplete, missing pieces here and there. But we are all beautiful. In fact, we are more beautiful because of it. Who wants polished perfection that belies the truth of what’s inside when you can have the raw power of beauty that’s broken because it has lived and loved and lost and carried on in spite of it all? Be broken and be beautiful.

In the above, I hear echoes of Leonard Cohen’s wonderful song Hallelujah.  Leon Wieselier, a friend of Cohen’s, wrote this a week after his death (New York Times, Nov. 14, 2016):

Leonard always sang as a sinner.  He refused to define sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a condition of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless. “Even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/ with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”

Post 2: Harris Wofford and the Idea of Service

Harris Wofford died in January of this year at the age of 92. He was a man aptly characterized as “being everywhere.” He was an early Peace Corps administrator, a university president (Bryn Mawr) and Senator from Pennsylvania (1991-1995). He was most famous for suggesting to JFK that he call Coretta Scott King to support and comfort her when her husband was in prison – a call that many say helped Kennedy win the election.

Harris was a friend. He came to our home on one occasion for dinner with our mutual friend, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh who was, in many ways, a mentor and spiritual guide to Harris. In 2005, he attended the dedication in Shanghai of the second phase of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, something I spent 10 years in negotiations with AID to build. We were together on numerous occasions celebrating the Peace Corps.

Harris was a little “out there” in his views. For this reason, Robert Kennedy once referred to him as a “slight madman.” I remember encountering him on the fifth floor of the Peace Corps Headquarters in 1965. “Hi Harris,” I said, “What’s new?” “How about a Peace Corps to Cuba,” he replied. This was only a few years after the Cuban missile crisis!

Most importantly, Harris’ life was dedicated to the idea of service, capping this off from 1995 to 2001 as CEO of AmeriCorps and continuing to encourage young, middle-age and older Americans to be engaged in community service for the remainder of his life.

On January 25, Michael Gerson paid tribute to Harris in the Op-Ed pages of The Washington Post and beautifully summed up the importance of the ideals to which Harris Wofford dedicated his life.

Op-ed by Michael Gerson, The Washington Post, January 25, 2019

…solving social problems is not just the work of government professionals; it is also the work of citizens. Countless small acts of service can add up to a more just and welcoming society. And one hopeful role for government is to catalyze volunteerism — employing government to encourage self-government. On this common ideological ground, Wofford built bipartisan consensus — say, on AmeriCorps — that few thought possible.

Wofford’s theory of social change is compelling. It speaks to the individual. No life lived in service to others is empty. Service is a good way to launch young people into responsible adulthood. A good way for seniors to share undiminished wisdom and skills. A good way for anyone to give purpose to their freedom and direction to their gifts.

It offers improvement at the social level. Service, as Wofford viewed it, is a source of grass-roots solutions to lingering social problems. Many of our worst challenges are deepened by apathy and passivity. They are overcome by committed, organized community effort.

And service is a way to cultivate something less tangible: the practice of citizenship. We are a nation that talks a great deal about who should be a citizen. There is less emphasis on how to be a citizen. And that is often learned in the company of others who share a public goal. Bonds of common purpose become ties of civic friendship, reaching across political divides. In a time of bitterness, choosing to serve others offers a kind of healing grace.

Last Saturday I attended a Memorial for Harris at Howard University, the historically black university where Harris enrolled in Law School in the early fifties. It was a rare pleasure to be in the company of so many persons who are carrying on Harris’ commitment to social justice and service, including many former Peace Corps volunteers. There is now a documentary on Harris’ life entitled (appropriately) “Slightly Mad.” In an excerpt from the film shown on a big screen, John Lewis, a Member of Congress and civil rights icon, stated that the Kennedy call to Mrs. King not only helped Senator Kennedy win the election but may well have saved Martin Luther King’s life.

A highlight of the Memorial was the singing of the Howard University choir. Especially moving was its rendition of “Oh Freedom” and its refrain, below. Here is a video taken from last row of the auditorium with my iPhone.

Oh freedom, Oh freedom

Oh Freedom over me

And before I’d be a slave

I’d be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free

 

Welcome to my blog

“It’s never too late to become what you might have been” is one of my favorite sayings and I have decided to apply it to myself.

I started my career path as an aspiring teacher as a graduate student of Philosophy living at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto after graduating from Notre Dame.  Then came John Kennedy, the Peace Corps and exposure to a much larger world and I took a different path altogether.  Eventually, I started a consulting company which has given me the opportunity to provide creative and fulfilling service internationally and to my own country for over 49 years.  (benchmarksinc.com).

During most of these years, however, I have kept a journal where I recorded ideas that enlightened me, moved me or even made me laugh.  I kept them for my own benefit and with the idea that someday they may be worth sharing with others.  Well, I have decided to share them now.

Just a few clarifications to start.  Most of these postings will be quotes from the writings of some of my favorite publications – The New York Times, The Washington Post and the National Catholic Reporter.  I will always try to cite these sources accurately.  Some will be religious, reflecting my 16 years (or more) in Catholic schools and my continued goal to live a life inspired by Christian values and the Christian faith. One of the results of these postings will be to inform friends of the blogs and writings of individuals much more inspirational and spiritual than I.

I have very limited ambitions about who will read this blog.  If I share it with my family and a small group of friends, that will be enough.  In fact, sharing it with one person (more than I have done in the past) would bring me real happiness.

At the start, let me assure you that very little on this blog will be about politics. An occasional point of view might be expressed, but mostly I subscribe to what David Brooks wrote in what will be my first posting: the Stem and the Flower.

Post 1: The Stem and the Flower

David Brooks column, August 17, 2014

How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?

Government is the hard work of creating a background order, but it is not the main substance of life. As Samuel Johnson family put it, “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws or kinds can cause or cure.” Government can set the stage but it can’t be the play.

It is just too balky an instrument. As we’re seeing even with the Obamacare implementation, government is good at check-writing, like Social Security, but it is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down. It’s hard to use economic incentives to get people moving in one direction. Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.

So one’s attitude toward politics should be a passionate devotion to a mundane and limited thing. Government is essential, but, to switch metaphors ridiculously, it’s the stem of the flower, not the bloom. The best government is boring, gradual and orderly. It’s steady reform, not exciting transformation. It’s keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility, but it doesn’t deliver meaning.

I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture, and fun. I wish our talk-show culture reflected that balance, and that the emotional register around politics were more in keeping with its low but steady nature.

Along with the above goes a wise quote from a New York Times obituary of Robert A. Dahl, a political scientist whom the Times described as his profession’s “most distinguished student of democratic government.” (The New York Times, February 7, 2014)

Professor Dahl readily conceded that most people are more interested in work, family, health, friendship and recreation than they are in politics, much less political science. “Politics is a side-show in the great circus of life,” he wrote.