Getting Personal

By Dr. Tom Vaughan ’55 | Dean Emeritus

Among the most common and least desired things in life is unsolicited advice on self-help from a self-appointed authority pontificating from moral high ground with the wisdom of the ages, or worse, personal testimonials including recollections and reminiscences, the weakest of all arguments. Notably excluded, of course, are the clergy and social scientists whose professional advice and counsel are sought. So, dear reader, bear with me for a minute or two to fill my allotted space, with the understanding that you can file it in the trashcan of small indulgences of strangers and old men.

Inspiration comes from different places at unexpected times, in various guises, and from people or events never intended to inspire. The impulse to carry a bulky parcel into the post office for a mother carrying a baby, the disheveled old man displaying interest in the curiosity of a child, simple acts of kindness with no thought of reward. Far from the lofty stage of public address or the photo-op of ceremony. No ruffles or flourishes of brass and drums.

So much of life is humdrum, with transient diversion sought in cheap thrills, vicarious participation in some celebrity circus, gone in the bat of an eye. High-sounding phrases and pious platitudes may provoke us to search for meaning, something significant in what we see about us, oftentimes an unrewarding scavenger hunt, so it seems.

I am reminded of an art professor, alternately a tyrant and a cream puff, intimidating in his critique but respected for his advice, who despite his unsparing judgement, manages to find something positive in every student’s effort, whatever the overall work. A beautiful color, a brushstroke, some little success to compliment. Is there not a lesson that can be applied to other assessments of our fellow beings? Captured in E.W. Hoch’s lines, “There’s so much good in the worst of us…,” but how soon we forget.

In a recent issue of Imprimis, the monthly newsletter published by Hillsdale College, Michigan, John Marini1 paid tribute to Frank Capra, legendary filmmaker of the 20th century, who came to America in 1903 as a six-year-old, the son of an impoverished, illiterate Sicilian family, to find a new life in the land of opportunity and freedom that was extended to all regardless of race or circumstance. In his 85th year, when he was being recognized by the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, Capra summed up the secret to his success in three simple principles: the love of people, the freedom of each individual, and the equal importance of each. Marini pointed out the concurrence with Ronald Reagan’s belief that “there is a purpose and worth to each and every life.”

Therein lies a challenge to each of us despite how negative our impressions may be of another, how injured we may have been by some experience. Can we not find something good in the worst of us, some way to forgive the injury, remember the gift, forget the grudge? Those who provide the most revulsion are likely those most in need of our understanding, our tolerance, and, yes, our help. Leading lives of quiet desperation, be it financial problems, health issues, unrequited love or simply low self-esteem, can we justify turning our backs in cynical unconcern?

One of the first street skills learned in the city is the avoidance of eye contact. One’s gaze is always “off-camera.” Of course, nowadays, with smart-phones, you get more eye contact from the family dog. Smiles, a nod of the head, a tip o’ the hat, any acknowledgement of someone’s presence may be construed as an invitation to any would-be intruder on one’s personal space. So, subconsciously, we construct an impersonal affect that excludes all but invited guests. What a threshold this further imposes on any interpersonal relationships.

We can at least start with our basic feelings toward our fellowman. Rating high on my list of favorite verse is “Abou Ben Adhem” by James H.L. Hunt. I spare you the full text, but the message is this. When Abou had just been told by the Angel that his name was not recorded as one of those who loved the Lord, Abou said,

I pray thee, then, write me as one that loves his fellow-men.”

The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night

It came again with a great wakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,

And, lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest!

In the laboratory of life, what rich opportunities exist to apply this philosophy to love the unlovable, and if you haven’t succeeded, you’ve not tried hard enough. At the risk if using all my verse in one load, I can think of no better way to close than Robert Burns’ unforgettable lines from his “Letter to a Young Friend” [and other writings.]

Yet they wha fa’ in Fortune’s strife,
Their fate we shouldna censure;
For skill, th’ important end of life
They equally may answer; …

Then gently scan your brother Man,
Still gentler sister Woman;
There, but for the Grace of God,
You might see me a’ comin …

And may yet better reck the rede [heed the advice],
Than ever did th’ adviser!


Yr humbl and obdt svt,


1Professor of Political Science, University of Nebraska.