Graduation time conjures up a legion of people ready to offer congratulations, farewells, and wisdom. The graduates are told about what they can expect as they go forth. Speakers laud them for their achievements and remind them to use what they have learned.
Graduates are ready to make their mark, to make the world a better place, et cetera. The analog clocks of graduation time tick and tock with the sounds of hope, and rightly so.
I teach adolescent boys, helping to form young men. A proper education forms young men as gentlemen and scholars within an environment nurtured by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The greatest of these is charity because charity is the eternal virtue. Charity reigns in Heaven among the Church Triumphant, who no longer have need of faith or hope because they have no doubts and have achieved perfect happiness. But, as the Apostle Paul instructs, love remains.
Hope is for the Church Militant, for those of us still working out our salvation, perhaps with at least a modicum of fear and trembling. The world is often an unfriendly place, and influential societal shapers offer a bewildering array of distractions, most marketed not as a way of avoiding responsibility, but instead put forward as Just the Right Thing. Advertisers tell us in order to sell us products that our lives lack Just the Right Thing, but have hope because here it is, available to all who want to be happy for a price that, even if high, can be broken down into a series of easy payments.
So, in keeping with the graduation times, I come bearing words. The Beatles tell us the best things in life are free. The advice that follows this paragraph is free. Therefore, the advice that follows must be well worth reading.
I can already see people who know me rolling their eyes and saying, “You, who often have a hard time shutting up, are telling others to talk less.” I admit it. I’m venturing into the realm of “Do I say, not as I do.” All I can offer in my defense is that just because I’m guilty does not mean I’m wrong.
It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in the negative. I struggle with focusing on the very many good things I encounter every day in my life. I know that I ought to share stories of victories, of good deeds, of unexpected blessings. More often than not, however, I have a hard time remembering those things. They get lost in the shadows of my pride and my disappointment. Then, when asked how my day was, all I can think of to share are those things that failed to live up to my expectations. How much better would life be if I could live according to just one Irish proverb?
“Leave the bad tale where you found it.”
I love the use of the word tale in the proverb. A tale is meant to be told to others. That is a tale’s function. Humans are tale-taking creatures. Sharing stories is hardwired into our nature. If I could leave the bad tales behind, how long would it take for that proverb’s corollary to become a habit? I’d become one who takes good tales with me.
And, for a time, I’d probably talk less, at least until my store of good tales exceeded the burden of the bad ones that I didn’t leave behind.
I can see more eyes rolling. Of course, the English teacher is going to say read more.
But let me explain. I don’t mean read more books. It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality, specifically the quality of how well I understand what I’ve read. We today have so much to read. Too much to read, really. In days of old before the invention of the printing press, books were rare and precious things. Those blessed with enough education to be literate had few books to choose from, and so readers in the ancient world chose carefully. They read not many books once, but instead, read a few books many times. I’ve read Song of Hiawatha at least ten times. Every time I read it, I understand something new. I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer more than that. Every time I read it, I understand something new.
The book read and reread doesn’t change. I change. If I read a book once a year, every time I read it, I’m a year older. Another year of triumphs and failures has passed. Another year of experiences gets added to the lenses through which I understand the world. As a result, I’m better able to grasp Hiawatha’s helplessness when Famine and Fever invade his home. I’m better able to see the devotion shining in Becky Thatcher’s eyes because Tom tells a lie to take the beating for something Becky did. “Tom, how could you be so noble!” Becky says, and my heart breaks for want of hearing anyone I love say such words to me.
Be on the lookout for that good book that merits more than one read. When it’s found, keep it. Revisit it and see how what it says has changed.
Hear is different than listen. Hear is transitive. Listen is not. I can hear a voice. Voice is the direct object. Voice receives the action of hear. I cannot listen a voice. I can listen to a voice, and it’s long seemed to me that the prepositional phrase reduces the quality of the action. I don’t want to be listened to. I want to be heard. I ought to want to hear others as well.
Hearing involves more than just the ears. It involves the eyes as well, even if they’re closed so that I can hear better. Mrs. Chance and I enjoyed a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. We sat too close to the stage, and I found it a struggle to both hear and see different performers at the same time. When the lead male sang, if I focused on him, I could better understand his pathos, but then I missed the details — the context clues, to wax English teacher — provided by the reactions of the other actors on stage at the time.
Hearing also involves the heart and the imagination, especially when the eyes and ears can’t help. This happens when I read. To be present in a book requires the imaginative act of seeing, hearing, and feeling what the characters in the book experience. The author’s words help convey that information. Without the effort to hear more than just the order of the words on the page, I fail to do justice to the author’s work.
More than theater, movies, and books, the people in our lives deserve our attention. They deserve to be heard.