My Baptist friends tell me there is only one way. There is only one true belief, only one true answer. All the words put together are the Word, and it means what it says—nothing more and nothing less.
My atheist friends tell me I am a fool for believing in something bigger than myself. Everything, they say, can be reduced to an equation. Everything has a logical, rational explanation. Mystery and wonder are only a lack of knowledge, nothing more and nothing less.
My conservative friends are certain that doing right is doing good. Culture determines the health of society, and adherence to defined and certain truths is the only way to support that health. They are certain that freedom—their freedom—is the key to a successful world, and yet even as they proclaim this, I hear the chains that bind them to principle rattle with the burden of conformity.
My liberal friends are certain that altruism can be legislated: Man can be saved from himself. They too believe in freedom—the freedom to construct ever-more-complex systems to repair the problems created by the last solution.
All my friends think I am wrong-headed. It’s OK. They’re right: I am.
Pappaw used to say, “Don’t worry, nothing will be all right,” and folks took it for pessimism. I understood it as he meant it, I think. It was a starting point that begged for hope and faith.
One day when I was small, we were leaving church. The preacher had been preaching hard, and Uncle Will, a most sanctimonious man, turned to Pappaw and asked, “Who do you think he was aiming at today?”
Pappaw replied quietly, “I don’t know who he was aiming at, but he found me.” And for the rest of the day he sat on the porch, whittling and studying.
When it was time for supper, we all gathered at the table and Pappaw announced there would be no grace said; no thanks for the meal would be offered. Instead, from that night on, as we each sat down we had to answer one simple question: What did you do for someone else today?
This new thing was hard. Saying grace was saying thank you, and even a person without a lick of sincerity could pull that off. If the new rule involved contriteness or apology, that too would have been easier. The sins of commission are often easy to recognize and easy to want to wipe clean. But this new rule involved the sins of omission.
As a boy, I wanted to be tender. I took my cue from Pappaw: He was kind and patient, never flustered. He held his truths dear but never in an angry way. Other people’s shoes fit him well, and he wasn’t afraid to walk in them. He was tough—he had fought in the Great War and farmed bad ground—but most of all he was tender.
A boy with aspirations toward this example of tenderness can find himself in an uncomfortable spot when considering the things he didn’t do. Our bad acts define us much less than the things we turn our back on when our arms and hearts are meant to be open.
As we went around the table that first night, I was caught up in listening to what everyone else had to say. Sister talked about sewing a dress for a friend. Billy said he’d helped with chores. One of the cousins said he hadn’t teased his sister all day, which—given his gift for aggravation—may have been better than a Christmas pony. When my turn came, I started to back away from the table. Voices chimed in, “You have to say, you have to say.”
Pappaw waited and said, “Do you not have something?”
I shook my head no and said I figured I ought not get supper if I hadn’t done anything for anybody that day. I went out on the porch to whittle and study because that’s what Pappaw did, and I thought it might ease my hunger. Both kinds.
A moment later, Pappaw joined me. He sat down softly. I thought maybe he’d come to chide me, since the softer he sat and the kinder his voice, the more direct the arrow.
“I didn’t have anything either. I was starting to feel disappointed in you when I realized that the mirror was calling me to account.”
Over the years, there have been many nights when I’ve gone to bed without supper and many more when I should have. I’ve spent a lot of time trying on the shoes of other people. I’ve tried on the things they think and feel and believe to see how they fit. Some things fit and some things don’t, but of the things that don’t, maybe I understand them better.
Pappaw used to ask, “How come when I open the window it’s a draft, but when you open the window it’s fresh air?”
I disappoint my friends of all persuasions. Is it so wrong to look for fresh air in every draft? And even if you don’t find it—don’t worry, nothing will be all right.
[Mark Jamison tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]