Heart, head and hands
In light of the recent chaos in the streets, I’ve been thinking that virtue-signaling might better be called virtue-searching. It seems that many of the young kids in the streets who are tangled up in slogans and utopia promises are truly searching for a better way to be. I’d feel much more inclined to support their protest movement, though, if the marchers carried signs that read, “I’m confused.”
One of the most solidly virtuous men I ever came across in my life was my grandfather. Once while buying me a fishing license (or it could have been a hunting license) a lady had two bags of groceries sitting on the counter of a country store. After she paid, despite her friendly protest, my grandfather bear hugged her paper sacks, carried them down the front step and took them to her car. He was in his 80s, she was middle aged. Didn’t matter. His internal whistle had blown and, if he was to continue to be the man he had made of himself, he was virtue bound to tote those groceries.
Without him knowing, I once approached the door of his tool shed (we called it a tool shed but I really think that it functioned more as a playhouse). Just as a clatter of miscellaneous stuff was knocked to the floor, I heard him say, “Well, any damn fool could have done that.” An impression formed. Apart from being the only time I remember hearing him cuss, he had given me insight into what he expected of himself. He wasn’t signaling, he was assessing his own performance and privately applying character demands to his actions.
Much later, another man, the greatest teacher that I ever had in real life, once explained to me that when a guy does the right thing, he has no business looking back to see if it has had the right effect. He said, “Trust God that good things will happen in your wake.” I learned from him that it was much easier to trust God than it was for God to be able to trust me. I consider myself to be a practicing Christian and know painfully well that I need a lot more practice.
At any rate, I would like to end this letter with a quotation from Robert Pirsig, the author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
“I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.”
That heart, head, and hands part is a pretty tall order, but in 70 years of life, it is one of the best prescriptions I’ve ever seen laid down. The hard part is living it.