Life lessons from my grandfather
“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” —Abraham Lincoln
My maternal grandfather Casey died when he was 80. He was institutionalized for a year prior to his death because his worsening dementia made him too unpredictable and uncontrollable for our diminutive and frail grandmother to handle. I visited Casey several times in that sad institution, and though my parents always prefaced my visits to him by saying, “Casey just spouts gibberish now,” I invariably found him cogent and funny in a rambling sort of way.
At the tail end of my last visit to Casey, about a week before he contracted a virulent flu and died, he said two things that have stuck with me for 30 years. We were sitting side-by-side on a concrete patio in a pool of sunlight when Casey arched his eyebrow (he reminded me of Groucho Marx) and said, “You know, this is a very exclusive university. It’s extremely difficult to get in here. But eventually, everyone does.”
We laughed about that and then Casey said, “Listen. When you find yourself with the bad people, get away from them and go to the good people.”
“Nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, ’You can’t keep a good man down.’ Most human societies have been beautifully organized to keep good men down.” —John W. Gardner
So what makes someone good or bad? Or are good and bad essentially useless terms, since one nation’s mass murderer is another nation’s hero, the town harlot turns out to be a tireless advocate for women’s rights and that usurious money lender is the beloved grandfather of a girl to whom he gave a pony? I took Casey’s advice to mean that if I find myself entangled in unhealthy relationships, I should, as swiftly as possible, get out of those relationships and seek healthier ones.
But maybe that’s not what Casey meant. Maybe he meant there really are bad people, and they should be escaped from and avoided; and there really are good people, and they should be found and hung out with. Or maybe he was just speaking gibberish.
“I’ve never met a racist yet who thought he was a racist. Or an anti-Semite who thought they were anti-Semitic.” —Norman Jewison
We recently saw the wonderful movie Temple Grandin, a fictional rendering of the life of a real person. I knew nothing about the real Temple Grandin before we watched the movie and that made the story all the more fascinating to me, so I won’t tell you what the movie is about. But I will say that it confirmed in me that being an insensitive conformist is bad, and thinking you know everything is also bad, but insensitive conformists and know-it-alls are not necessarily bad people.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
I wonder how Martin Luther King Jr. would have defined a bad person. I’m guessing he believed in the essential goodness, or the potential for being good, in all people, but felt that racists were infected with racism and therefore had gone bad, as food goes bad when tainted with poisonous bacteria.
“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” —Luke 14:13
When I was a young vagabond, I decided to read the Bible. I felt something was missing in my understanding of our society, and I thought I might find that something in the Bible. I thought this because I kept meeting people who would quote from the Bible, and many of these people were kind and generous to me; so I spent several months plowing through the book, reading every word, though many of those words struck me as redundant and ill-conceived.
The Bible, as you probably know, is composed of two distinct halves, the Old Testament and the New Testament, each an anthology of booklets. Many authors contributed to both halves, and some of the booklets are far more interesting and better written than others. The editors of each of the two anthologies shared a well-defined agenda, and so excluded any gospels espousing beliefs contrary to that agenda, which was to increase the power of the church and her operatives by making the case in booklet after booklet that the only way to access God was through the Church and her operatives, otherwise known as priests and ministers.
But whatever the original agenda of those bygone editors, what impressed me most about the Bible was the command repeated many times in the legends of Jesus, and that command was to be generous and kind to those weaker and less fortunate than we.
Indeed, I could make an impregnable case that sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is the primary message of the New Testament, which is supposedly the guiding light of American Christianity, though sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is definitely not the guiding principle of the majority of representatives in Congress who claim to be Christians.
Isn’t that odd?
“The young man said to Him, ’All these commands I have kept; what am I still lacking?’ Jesus said to him, ’If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’” —Matthew 19:20
I love the word complete in that quotation. Complete. Whole. Connected to others in loving ways. For when compassion and generosity propel our actions, don’t we feel good? And when fear and greed propel our actions, don’t we feel just awful?
So maybe that’s what Casey meant by, “When you find yourself with the bad people, go to the good people.”
Maybe he was saying we have a choice, through our actions, to be good people.