The Supreme Artists Of Kindness
Every morning I think, Today! Surely today I will be a better person. Then as I feel my way in the 4:00 a.m. darkness toward the coffee maker, I remember Lucy! Will this be the morning I reclaim my study—my oak writing table, its CFL daylight-blue lamp, my hand-rubbed, golden oak swivel chair, its wide, embracing arms? Today, will I dare ease open the study door, hoping to let the sleeping dog lie on the bed I built when Trina and I were first married, the bed I used to stretch out on if I needed just another minute or two of sleep while the coffee brewed—the bed . . . the desk . . . the room Lucy, for over a year, has laid claim to? No, if I wake her, I’ll have to accompany her out back to do her business, then fill her water bowl, kick and throw a multitude of balls into the darkness for her to chase, bring back, and God help me if I don’t have treats in my pocket. Then inside for her capsule of salmon oil, her handful of Brewer’s Yeast tablets, two Milk Bones—one on her kitchen mat, the other on her front entryway cushion; then into the garage to fill her inside dog bowl with grain-free expensive kibble. The unkind thoughts begin to rise. I take my coffee and the laptop into the living room, everything antique and breakable.
As soon as I settle, Lucy begins to bark.
Jan Morris is a kind person. She is eighty-nine years old, Welsh, an award-winning writer of books about cities she loves, their people, especially those in Italy, especially Venice. I heard her interviewed on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday for November 1, 2014. She has a new book Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation, about the art of Vittore Carpaccio, an overlooked Italian Renaissance painter. She says Carpaccio loved animals (one dog in particular who appears in the paintings), and children, and women. She calls him “the supreme artist of the idea of kindness.” I wonder, would he have been so kind had the dog been Lucy? Jan Morris told the interviewer Scott Simon, “And I thought at the end I’d like to do something small – not pretentious or grand in any way – but something with expressed affection and happiness and some humor.” Then she talked about love and kindness: “Because there’s no key to love itself, is there? I suppose just plain, simple love is the only answer to the whole thing. And even that can be reduced to something simpler, which is the overwhelmingly important idea of kindness. Sometimes you can’t go as far as love, but you can always be as kind as you possibly can.”
All you need is love, all together now
All you need is love, everybody
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need . . .
You don’t have to be from my generation to recognize the concluding stanza from the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. I would add a study with a large Australian shepherd dog who doesn’t jump up to lick my face while I’m trying to write, doesn’t bounce on her bed like a kid on a trampoline then spring for the top of my writing table. Some love is overrated.
Maybe I could strive for civility, at least at Hardin-Simmons—exampling civility to students, faculty, staff personnel, the administration. I’m working on it. The late Renaissance scholar A. Bartlett Giamatti – B. A. in English and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale, professor of Italian and comparative literature at Princeton and then at Yale before becoming president of Yale from 1978 until 1986 when he was appointed president of Major League Baseball’s National League, then from April 1, 1989, until his death September 1, 1989, serving as Commissioner of Baseball – defines civility in his 1990 book A Free And Ordered Space: The Real World of the University:
I use the word civility often. The word is important to my view of the University as a place where the most free-swinging and intense intellectual exchange takes place without any intent to damage or coerce other human beings, and as a place where the larger goal of intellectual training is a civic one—the making not only of future scholars but of good citizens. Civility has to do with decency and mutual respect and, finally, with a free and ordered common life—or civilization. (12)
Bart Giamatti then points out the etymological differences between gentility and civility—nothing genteel about being civil. There may be hope for me. Giamatti says it this way: “Civility has nothing at all to do with gentility, any more than citizenship, in all its resonance, has to do with good breeding or polite manners” (12). He then concludes by saying, “I learned at Yale there were those who would insist to the contrary [that gentility and civility have different etymologies] if not reminded that words have longer histories, and have accreted more significance, than in the seizure of the moment some choose to think” (12-13).
Who wouldn’t love a university president who majored in literature and delights in the pedigree of words, holding them in his mouth like a sip of vintage wine, swishing them across the palate? Who wouldn’t revere a university president who loves baseball, becoming Commissioner? Who wouldn’t follow a president who strove against the “Zealots of Left or Right” threatening “institutional independence and interdependence,” a president squared up at the plate, turning into the pitch, driving “the need for an educational process that constantly tests the values it holds dear, that tolerates ambiguity and diversity in the real world—in itself and elsewhere—and that strives ever for purposeful change, change rooted in the past and blossoming throughout a lifetime” (11-12)?
Giamatti also said: “Being president of a university is no way for an adult to make a living. Which is why so few adults actually attempt to do it” (17). Maybe it helps to be schizophrenic (Giamatti didn’t say it quite that way). He said being a university president means holding “a mid-nineteenth-century ecclesiastical position on top of a late-twentieth-century corporation” (17). I take this to mean it’s not as easy as it looks. “But there are those lucid moments, those crystalline experiences, those [James] Joycean epiphanies, that reveal the numinous beyond and lay bare the essence of it all” (17). Giamatti confirms that yes, he has experienced such epiphanies, such moments: “They were all moments of profound and brilliant failure—but string those glistening moments of defeat into a strand and you have the pearls of an administrative career” (17). What a tasty paradox—“moments of profound and brilliant failure”—why, I’m sure, Giamatti loved baseball—a sport where failure is expected 70% of the time; where, on any given day, you play two; where you get another chance, and another, and . . . Time does not run out until you do.
Oh, and another reason, perhaps the best, why I love Bart Giamatti; he had an irreverent sense of humor. Come on! A university president with a sense of humor? A faculty? There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159-167). You must read A Free And Ordered Space. Surely the HSU Richardson library has a copy. If I were kind, I would share mine. The book is available at Amazon. At least read Giamatti’s introductory chapter “Ruminations on University Presidency.” It’s funny! Okay, it’s also intellectual, a parody of us. Giamatti was named president of Yale in December 1977, but he did not take office until July 1978. In the interval, he had “ample opportunity to receive advice” (17). He went in search of a “policy” (18), one that would solve Yale’s deficit and enhance the university’s quality. And Giamatti also sought to be recognized as a “Manager” (18):
One night in early April 1978, crouched in my garage, as I was trying to memorize the Trustees’ names, particularly the ones I had met, it came to me, and I wrote, right there, between the lawnmower and the snow tires, a memo. On July 1, 1978, my first day in office, I issued this memo to an absent and indifferent University. It read,
To the members of the University Community:
In order to repair what [John] Milton called the ruin of our grand parents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored.
I trust all of us will do whatever possible to achieve this policy objective. (18)
Giamatti adds, “The reaction was quite something” (18). You know the reaction, what the “quite something” entailed. They thought he was joking; they didn’t think it was funny. Neither did Giamatti: “Most of the voices one hears tend to be those announcing the Apocalypse” (27). He feared the consequences of “those who know best the realities and the ideals of higher education” falling “silent, for whatever reason,” or believing “themselves only managers, not leaders” (27). “Silence about the nature and purpose of higher education will never remind those who have forgotten or inform those who never knew” (30).
Jesus said, “‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8: 31-32). In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.’” He admonishes us, “But do your work, and I shall know you. Do you work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”
Since 1891, the Hardin-Simmons faculty, staff, and administrators have been doing God’s work, your work, “remind[ing] those who have forgotten, . . . inform[ing] those who never knew” (Giamatti 30). I realized this week I’m on geologic time, and not just because I’ve become a dinosaur, having been at HSU since 1977. On geologic time, forty years is a pebble, a rain drop, the point of a #3 pencil just touching the first page of a crisp, new notebook. I’m still the new guy walking the halls, the grounds, absorbing the music of your voices, that joy, a language all your own. You, whose lips have touched the prophet’s living coal, who answered the call, “Here am I,” anointed to bring good news, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty, offering a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Too grand? Too poetic? You would prefer a cost-of-living raise retroactive five years? I’m with you. Forget the poetry, but in the meantime, real time, who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this? Abolish evil. Restore paradise.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self Reliance.” Selected Writings of Emerson, edited by Donald McQuade, Modern Library, 1981, pp. 129-53.
Giamatti, A. Bartlett. A Free And Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. Norton, 1990.
Isaiah 6:1-9; 61: 1-4.
Lennon, John. “All You Need Is Love.” Yellow Submarine, 1967.
Morris, Jan. Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation. Liveright, 2014.