The chiseled hand on my ancestor’s tombstone points upward. We’re headed in the opposite direction. Our rapidly secularizing society is also evolving into the superficial society. Standards are being lowered, the trivial elevated.
Examples? An interview with a Congressman is interrupted for “breaking news”— yet another court appearance by Justin Bieber. An open mike picks up casual use of the “F” word by federal officials — low and high, both R’s and D’s. Our sports heroes, entertainers, military brass, and even an occasional clergyman are caught lying, swearing, cheating, drinking, drugging or gambling. Need I also mention sexual misconduct?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m no angel, you’re no angel, and hypocrisy is as cheap and plentiful as pop tarts and tootsie rolls. But let’s agree that the Greatest Generation is likely not ours. Not when you begin to look down on those you should be looking up to.
The chiseled hand points upward — to something better. I once received a letter from Alex Haley. Alex wasn’t perfect — he admitted to a wee bit of plagiarism — but overall was a terrific and inspirational example for others. I was one of many who eulogized him with newspaper articles when he passed away. We all praised him.
And “praise” was a key word in Ben Johnson’s take on Haley in the St. Pete Times of 1992. He wrote: “Haley’s legacy would have us all loosen the mental bonds that ensnare us. His exhortation in his last public speech (was) ‘Find the good and praise it.’”
This might require sorting through a list of names, selecting the most admirable, and focusing on their most praiseworthy attribute or behavior. Here’s a test list: Billy Graham, Lance Armstrong, Anthony Weiner, the Pope, Miley Cyrus, Colin Powell. That was way too easy and the figures perhaps too public.
Just like all politics is local, so is much of our society’s most praiseworthy virtues. My own list would include my minister, my mailman, and my wife. I’ve also got some wonderful neighbors and friends who do praiseworthy things. We just need to notice and thank, if not praise, them for their kind deeds and best behaviors.
Below the chiseled upward-pointing hand are words my ancestor left for passersby to dwell on: “Gone to a far better place.” By raising our standards as we find the good and praise it — while also condemning the bad when called for — we can also make where we are right now a far better place.
The superficial society could become super. Even if Haley’s comet is eclipsed someday, our Haley’s legacy of separating vice from virtue is eternal. “Find the good and praise it.” Let’s do it.
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida. His ancestor’s tombstone is in Clermont County, Ohio.