On my way to the commuter train in the evening, there is a young black man who sells candy bars for a dollar a piece. Often, he is standing there, selling his wares with his children. Occasionally, I have stopped to buy a candy bar from him, before hurrying up the stairs at the station to catch the train. One day, I stopped to talk with him, and asked him why he was out in the frigid Chicago air selling candy. He replied that he was doing this to help support his family. He had an honest and kind look in his eyes…I had no reason not to believe him. Once in a while, I would stop and give him two dollars, and would only take one candy bar, which I would eventually give away to someone else.
One particular evening, as I approached this man selling his candy, I realized that the smallest currency that I had in my wallet was a five dollar bill–and, not willing to part with it, adverted my eyes from the candy salesman as I passed him by, scurrying up the stairs to catch my train.
When I sat down in my seat on the train, a woman sat across the aisle from me, and was talking with her friends. I heard the woman say that she only had a ten dollar bill in her wallet–but, not knowing what to do, gave the man selling candy the ten dollars, and took a candy bar and no change.
When I heard this, I immediately hung my head in sorrow and remorse, for I was certain that I could have afforded to give this man five dollars, more than this woman could give him ten. I made a small “Sign of the Cross” with my thumb and forefinger, and asked God to forgive me for my selfishness and thoughtlessness. I vowed never to pass by this man again, without putting at least a couple of bucks in his hand–and, taking only one candy bar. And, I never have since.
“When I go down and see the way some people live,
and look around dismayed,
shame scorches my cheeks like the back of a flatiron.
How shamefully we hold our tongues.
Or, at the most, we hem and haw . . .
Lies are written on fat faces
That should be hidden in trousers . . .”
“Never stifle a generous impulse.”
Note: I have used this quote in a previous post. But, I think that it is important enough to repeat.
Last winter, I was invited to tour an institution called the Catholic Theological Union (http://www.ctu.edu) by the president of this school. This organization is the largest Catholic divinity school in the United States, and is located in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, on the southeast side of the city, for those not familiar with the area. The school, which now trains mostly lay people for both domestic and foreign missionary duty, was co-founded in the late 1960′s, interestingly enough, by the chief Rabbi of one of the local synagogues in the area, to foster the study of Catholic-Jewish relations–a subject which interests me greatly.
At any rate, on the ground floor of the school is a map of the world, with two groups of colored dots. One color denotes where the students who attend the school are drawn from. The other color indicates where the graduates of the school are performing their work around the world.
I was particularly impressed by the simple, yet eloquent, message that the map relates. It is a message that we all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, should remember as we go about our daily lives. God calls us to do His work, and then sends us out in the world to do it. Nothing complicated about that–pretty straight forward. Yet, somehow, that profound message seems to get lost in the cacophony of the temporal world in which we live.
The one thing that I’ve seen in business that gets people into trouble, other than unbridled ego and greed, is that they take on too many tasks. They try to do too many things, for whatever reason (ego, maybe?), with the end result being that they screw everything up.
One of the greatest compliments that I’ve ever had in business was when someone once said to me, “Paul, I’ve never known you not to do anything well.”
I think that you’re much better off, and will greatly enhance your reputation for competence and integrity, if you do a few things very well, rather than a lot of things done poorly, or not so well. People won’t remember the number of tasks that you’ve tried to accomplish. But, they sure will remember your screw-ups.
“Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all”
I recently had lunch with an attorney friend of mine (or, rather, I should say that he was kind enough to invite me to lunch at his downtown Chicago club). We were having a lively discussion, when he stops me in mid-sentence and says, “You don’t skip through life frivolously, do you? Things weigh on you. You give your words great thought before you say them.”
I was startled by his comment. But, I had to agree with him. He got that one right.
I’ve never been interested much in “things”. If you have a nice house, I think that is wonderful. If you have a big, fancy car, I’m very happy for you. But, material goods just don’t interest me much. Oh, I have decent clothes, and have a car that is absolutely fine–but, nothing really fancy. It’s OK. I think that there is so much more to life than the material.
I had lunch this past summer with a very prominent Chicago media executive. He said to me, “You know, Paul, I know a lot of people with an awful lot of money. I can’t say that it’s made them any happier.”
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores, and longing to eat what fell from the Rich Man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The Rich Man also died and was buried. In Hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’.
But Abraham replied, ‘Son remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone else cross over from there to us.’
He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’
But, now we can cross that chasm. We can take care of the poor. We can comfort the sorrowful. We can heal the sick. And, we can shed the warm light of hope on all those who suffer in the darkness of despair.
Over the past nine months or so, I have had at least ten friends, or close acquaintances, die from various diseases, mostly cancer of one type or another. The youngest was 50 years, with the oldest being 68 years–all cut down much to young, with their life’s work left unfinished. All were good people, doing great things.
I have wondered what to make of this.
I remember from my education in the classics (the Jesuits were great at this), that most symphonies are written in four movements. That great composer, Franz Schubert, however, was only able to complete two movements of his work, before he died an untimely death in 1868. Hence, the work became famously known as the Unfinished Symphony (Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8).
Our work, it seems, is to complete the “symphonies” of the lives that these premature deaths left unfinished–to carry on the good works, and good deeds, that they were so tragically unable to complete. That is how we can best honor the memory of those who have died so young–carrying on the wonderful work and good things that they left undone.
I recently had breakfast at a pancake house near where I live. As I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, I noticed a car with a “Vietnam Veteran” license plate (a type of vanity plate that can be purchased for a special fee in Illinois). I looked inside the car, and there sat an older black man, probably around my age, with a snow white beard, and reading a book. I got out of my car, and went over to the window of his car, pointing at the U.S. Army “Vietnam Veteran” baseball cap that I wear sometimes. (The cap has my lieutenant’s silver bar, and two hat pin replicas of my Bronze Star Medals attached to it). I think that I startled him. But, when he saw me pointing to my cap, he smiled broadly and gave me a “thumbs up”.
As I was eating breakfast, I saw this gentleman come into the restaurant and sit down at a booth near me. He ordered breakfast, and continued reading his book. When I finished my meal, I went over to where he was sitting, and extended my hand, saying, “Welcome home, soldier!” He looked up at me and whispered in a soft voice, “Welcome home, lieutenant.”
It was just two old soldiers welcoming each other home from that terrible war so long ago.
We have in Chicago what is known as “The Art of the Palm”. That term is typically used in a pejorative sense, indicating that something nefarious is about to take place, or has happened. It usually refers to the passing of cash, as in giving someone a bribe. But, let me tell you about a time when “The Art of the Palm” was used in a good sense, and for what I hope is a good purpose.
Readers of my previous blog postings will know that I have befriended a StreetWise sales vendor, who plies his wares in the late afternoon near that commuter rail station that I use to come into and out of downtown Chicago. The vendor’s name is Standard. He is a kindly gentleman in his 50′s, I would guess–a fellow veteran, so he tells me. On my way to the train station to come home, I always buy a StreetWise paper from him every Wednesday (when a new issue comes out) for $2, and slip him a dollar bill on other days when I pass by where he stands.
On the day before Christmas Eve last year, however, as I was hurrying to catch the evening train home, I folded a $20 bill in the palm of my right hand, in the best Chicago “Art of the Palm” style. As I passed by Standard, I shook his hand, and transferred the twenty to him, saying “Merry Christmas, Standard!” He immediately knew what happened, without opening his palm to look at what I had given him. He gave me a hug, looked at me, and with a beautiful warm glow in his eyes whispered with a breaking voice in my ear, “Merry Christmas, sir!”
I scurried to my train home through the snow flakes and bitter cold air.