Not Sainthood, Just Common Decency

Bishop's Close Memorial Day 2011 024

I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit I miss what some may deem old-fashioned virtues and ways of behaving. This stands although now I have made it into my sixties, I accept without reservation that I’ll never be the saint that, as a small child, I set my sights on being. Though whether saints have been free enough of failure to uphold pristine standards, I can’t know for certain. I suspect they were as challenged as most yet had within their personalities far finer characteristics, and could demonstrate as such. I, alas, cannot at all manage feats that warrant such outstanding regard.

I wasn’t raised with sainthood as part of my religious vocabulary, but I mean no disrespect. As I early on heard of the idea I interpreted saintliness to mean a courageous, superior and compassionate human being who died an often terrible death. Minus the untimely and unhappy expiration, I thought this was a position in the world worth striving for, something grand and humble at once. I was aware of the legend of Joan of Arc and it inspired me. Early visions took her into incendiary French and English politics and even battle. Then, for all her risks and fervency, was burned at the stake very young. I should have extracted from this a message of warning. Instead, I found her to be a fearless young woman dedicated only to the greater good. She heeded such a call to action. The depiction of her as an individual who appeared to rise above station, gender and, for a time, common societal rules was breathtaking. I wanted to be someone like that.

Why was I taken with such thoughts even as a kid, then as a youth? It may have been the romance of it, given as I was to dreaming and pondering disparate viewpoints and experiences. I am sure a small, hungry ego was well on its way to growing, as well. Yet something in me longed to do good for others, felt it a mandate for being alive on earth. And heroics appealed, whether on the playground or in the greater world. I didn’t have patience with others being hurt, physically or emotionally. I had a fierceness tucked inside a small body topped by a blond “Dutch-boy” haircut and outfitted with pretty dresses made by my mother. As I grew, my idealistic response grew. Sly, offhand cruelties that emerged in school by adolescence inflamed me. To excel, to make the world better, to be a person of whom my parents and God (and others) might be proud were driving forces.

I was much like any other child in that regard, I suspect–it came down to love in one way or another. So I practiced behavioral expectations with the same discipline required of playing cello or figure skating. Kindness in thought and deed, fairness in work and play, forgiveness and reconciliation. Depth over superficiality, civility over impatient self-service, respect of others despite differences, a basic good humor. These were hallmarks of the family’s code and the community I knew. It all worked well for a long time. My parents tried hard to model them. And my earliest Methodist church groups underscored the importance of cultivating such strengths. (I know it’s unpopular to make such a statement as many are quick to give hew and cry about hypocrisy in Christianity. I would posit that all religions on this planet are embraced and practiced by human beings. That fact can and does seriously complicate things. That Jesus was in truth a spiritual and social revolutionary is another story; his message was of life changing love and taking responsibility for our actions.) In fact, I was a cheerful learner because it was pleasant and offered desired responses.

But then one begins to grow up. Life is not experienced with the same level of guilelessness as before. And bad things just happen. My mottoes became “Excellence Above All” and “Courage, Strength, Tolerance, Determination”, just abbreviated to “C.S.T.D.”,  which I wrote on notebooks and my personal bulletin board, even my palm. If it had been an era for tattoos, these would have been inked on my forearms for daily reference. They were aiding my internal survival as I navigated damage of non-familial abuse and other assaults. They helped me manage the vagaries of a pressurized society, and strive to compete in many arenas. These exhortations may have held a somewhat grim quality. Still, in my center most self I yet felt the potent stirrings of earlier lessons, those softer ones that undercut anger and confusion over injustices private and public. And they also sometimes kept me quiet when I desired to be outspoken, less mannerly–this was the other side of “civilized” behavior at times. Like mighty wings, however, those earliest values kept me aloft even when I sank. They gave me hope.

I am given to rumination in part because one of those sites about one’s hometown posted a picture of my father a couple of weeks ago. It isn’t the first time. He was shown playing his viola. The multitude of comments about him stated he was a true gentleman, a beloved teacher and fine conductor and musician. All those years ago, students and friends had been impacted by his profound integrity, an impulse to aid folks on the path of life as well as nurturing musical talents. He was soft-spoken and eloquent, held a crowd in thrall with speeches surprised by humor. His classical and pop orchestral concerts were shaped by an appreciation of high ideals, romance and drama as well as uncompromising technique. My father had a grace that came easily. At home, he never yelled or took a hand to us; he gave us “the look” that told us to get a grip on ourselves. (Far from perfect, he was absent a lot, a man of few words privately, perhaps unusually devoted to music and study of other subjects. He could be less attuned to his family though this was not for lack of love.) In short, the commenters were correct, he lived what he taught: Love God, be good to others and strive for success.

My mother also provided preparatory for life, often with intriguing stories told at the dinner table. She was attentive and charitable, believed good manners got you much farther than good looks (though a bright ensemble and well brushed hair were useful, too), encouraged us no matter our “hits or misses”. But if my father’s personality was characterized by a restrained but steady glow, hers was one sparked by emotion of all sorts. And frankness when something was unjust or even deemed to be in poor taste. Then she tapped a forefinger to lips, as if to admit she may have uttered more than necessary–though we hung on every word.

However, by eighteen, it appeared I was failing to uphold trusty family standards. I struggled with drug abuse. I was an eager hippie who also felt vehemently that the world was on its last legs and people like myself were needed to wake it up and set things right. Circling closer to the establishment-challenging Students for a Democratic Society and becoming involved with women’s liberation in college women’s centers, small group gatherings and more, I pondered things not experienced up close before. It was the sixties and seventies, a period of intense student activism and civil disobedience: civil rights marches; rising feminism; nonviolent, anti-war protests. I was engaged in furious creative activity, in performance art, with writers and musicians who espoused these ideals and protested in the old style coffee houses, in streets, on stages. I jumped in and made my own small waves along with my cohorts. We dreamed large dreams and tried to live them, with some successes.

All this took me a long way from home base but I argued with my worried parents that I was not really free of childhood beliefs, at all. I wanted equal rights for people regardless of race or gender; I wanted peace and love, not war; I wanted things to be made better for students but also for future generations. I wanted–that was the problem… I wanted too much for everyone, also myself, but did not have the wisdom yet to find my way well, to be effective while true to myself. That was the hardest part, as it is for anyone who is caught in the throes of becoming an adult. (I did conclude drugs did not provide worthy avenues for that pursuit.)

All this time I still sought God’s guidance but was less receptive to answers, perhaps. There were such diverse voices making noise in the streets and in college classrooms and when I was alone I felt besieged by the passions of youth. I’d held God’s Presence in my heart while trying to light my own path by any number of curious and sometimes mad means.

In my early twenties I married an award winning sculptor (who built houses, as well), then had my first child. I still felt naturally given to a bohemian but less politically engaged lifestyle. I embraced “the personal is political” idea; my husband and I would simply live more enlightened and simplified lives day to day. We struggled with marital demands, money issues and parenting but had much to create. Explore and share. Over time, much settled within me and a quiet life tending hearth and gardens appealed more than I had imagined. Motherhood tamed that need for a radical life lived ardently into a life of devotion and hopefulness for my children, that they might live freer, with intellectually and emotionally rich lives. With stalwart integrity. I became less enamored of my selfish needs, to my relief. I wanted first for them to be clear that humans are spiritual beings making lives on a shared planet, and that we must treat one another with care. And I found that paring the excesses in my life could eventually bring more to fruition.

And so I found my way right back to what mattered as a child (if I had ever truly abandoned it). Not being a saint, oh no–I had already committed far too many offenses to ever hope for that, with more to come. And, truthfully, it just held so much less appeal. But I stayed true to my own “C.S.T.D.” and survived disasters of my own and other’s making. My intention was to make up for the scurrilous times by loving God with more openness and constancy–and behaving like I did. Just as I was taught early on.

It is tempting to forget the Divine Creator has the power to sustain and direct us in all things. We are distracted every day by endless curios, our fears and desires; important causes and effects of a myriad events near and far. It can begin to seem more comfortable to sit back, stop the mind from questioning and the soul from heeding its urgings. And in our moral laziness we get short with the sales person, cut off the driver trying to ease in, hush the child who needs to talk about anything at all. We compromise ourselves. I  find it spiritually dangerous to do so.

God is placed somewhere off to the side, after the list of chores and wishes. But we might give more attention to God; God attends to us in the very center of our souls where clear intuitions and our best impulses exist. They are there to show us the way to deeply decent lives. And, too, we should take risks, stand up, speak our minds, share our hearts. No one else can do these things for us–and countless numbers in this world are not able to do so. I want to share peace and a smile even walking down the street; it is lovely that most people smile right back. If all we can do is just exercise good manners and be fair and honest in everyday dealings, that is a fine start.

There is another reason why this topic took hold. The other day a homeless person was bending over his cart, tending all his belongings. I thought as I walked by that I should take out my wallet and offer money. I knew I had only ten dollars, no smaller bills or change. So I just did not; I rationalized it away. I walked on and the next thought I had was: the next person that asks me for money, I’ll give ten dollars to. Within a half block another man walked by and said, “Spare change, ma’m?”

And did I give that ten dollars to him? I just shook my head and moved on and as I passed, I felt so much smaller than I had felt in a long, long while. It was as if God was giving me that tiny challenge and, boy, did I ever fall short. I cannot say why that occurred except I am fallible so I hesitate. Then the moment passes. There was no good excuse. It’s one of the warnings I get–that it’s too easy to forget what matters. It also showed me how I can–even when it’s what I want and need to do–outwit my better self. Just a few steps apart from the opportunity, then a chance is gone. It’s not enough to tell myself I gave at such-and-such or to another gal yesterday. But the next time whatever I have will be given, as I do believe God and I are in this maze of life together and I want to be moved first and last. Otherwise, I am lost, since intelligence and achievements cannot love or heal or provoke the joy I want to share.

I now live a tame (if still creative) lifestyle by most standards, I suppose. I live with or around art in many forms and am happy with that. I’m sure not trying for any measure of sainthood. I’m all grown up. It’s hard enough to be a decent human being. I do try to live an actively compassionate life and want it to be as if it is like my skin, as if I cannot leave the house without it. It may take courage; it certainly takes awareness, then action. I’ll keep working on it as there are so many needs and I do know how to respond.

Meanwhile, there’s a weatherproof jacket left outside near the place the homeless come to look for cans. It rains a lot here. Maybe that will be useful to someone. It’s the least I could do today. Tomorrow, something else will present itself like a question. I will do my best to answer. It’s so little to require of ourselves, don’t you think?

10 thoughts on “Not Sainthood, Just Common Decency

  1. I believe everyday is a journey towards something better than yesterday.
    We seek new paths in ourselves whether in greater understanding or in retrospect. Some of these discoveries lead us to find the rocks in the roadway and stumble. It’s how we pick ourselves up to move towards acceptance which will lead us forward.

    1. So true, Joanne. We really do have a choice for change daily– or a persistent adherence to our highest values as each day unfolds. Acceptance/self acceptance certainly do seem key to a serene life. Thank you for reading and sharing your response, much appreciated.

  2. So true, Cynthia. We are fallible. Not a day goes by that we don’t err in some way. But I’m with you, I want a compassionate skin! And I’m grateful that God doesn’t remember my past errors, which are many…

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