My fraternity brother at the University of Michigan was dying from diabetes, having already endured a series of minor amputations. But Art loved music and continued composing songs and singing them while playing a banjo. When the popular quartet — the Brothers Four — came to campus for a concert, they agreed to attend a reception for them at our fraternity house. And Art wanted to play his latest song for them.
When the reception was drawing to a close, I ushered the Brothers Four out to the parking lot through the kitchen, knowing that Art was sitting at a table and hoping to play his new song for them. When I asked the quartet if they could stop and listen to Art’s song, they immediately said “Yes,” two of them sitting across from Art, the other two behind them. Art passed away several years later. But he had had his moment in the sunshine with the Brothers Four.
After graduating from Michigan, I lived in New York City for a year. I was in a typical New York deli, perusing the menu on the wall when I became aware of a verbal dispute right in front of me. A teenage boy was accusing another boy of stealing his bike, a charge being vigorously denied. The accuser was holding a glass pop bottle behind his back. Suddenly he lashed out, striking the other boy across the face with the heavy end of the pop bottle. Blood gushed out, an employee rushing forward with a towel for the injured boy to hold against his face to soak up the blood, and I walked him to a nearby emergency room.
We encounter a variety of human traits in life: kindness, compassion, mercy and their opposite, hateful and often vindictive meanness. The warm feelings engendered by the Brothers Four story contrasts sharply with the chilling shock and brutality of the pop-bottle attack.
We can debate which of these opposites is more embedded in human nature, but we cannot deny that both exist.
Abstract theoretical discussions lack the juice and vitality of our actual experiences in life. I can close my eyes, and, many years later, still see and feel the Brothers Four and pop-bottle episodes. I still cringe as I see the pop-bottle striking the face of the one boy, much as I smile when I picture Art playing his song for the Brothers Four.
In one of his last speaking engagements, ‘Roots’ author Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.”
There is certainly plenty of goodness out there during our holiday celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, and other religions. We are immersed in inspirational music, gifts coming and going, kids leaving cookies for Santa Claus, and their parents leaving envelopes with cash for the mailman or garbage collectors who have labored all-year long. We put our best foot forward this time of year.
And we should.
A final postscript for the holiday season is that finding and emphasizing the good — and burying the bad — may be the ultimate in wisdom. In fiction, for every Santa Claus there is a Grinch … or Scrooge.
In real life, let’s work all year long to tilt the ratio in favor of goodness and kindness over meanness and bad behavior.
I like the Art story far better than the pop-bottle episode.
Be kind to all.
James F. Burns is a native of Cincinnati and a retired professor at the University of Florida. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org