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A young man came to our church office, looking for food and someone to pray with him about his father, who was under hospice care in a cheap motel room. His small family was caught in the bureaucracy between the medicaid systems of two states. The hospital couldn’t keep the father and hospice needed a place to treat him. Most likely he would die in room 25 of the Rodeway Inn.
The wind swept life of this family was illustrated on the back of the son’s left calf. As he walked away, all I could read of the tattoo was “In memory of” and the years 1995-2014. The young man cared for his father among transients and memorialized a 19-year old in his nomadic flesh. He was living proof that we live in a dislocated age.
In the first sentence of Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, Nathan tells about his grandfather:
“I picked him up in my arms and I carried him home.”
In once sentence, Berry foreshadows a tender novel in which he weaves together love, family, and place. We immediately discover four generations live in that one sentence and they all know of home. They are rooted in the same geography and connected to each other by grief, vows, love, and land.
Here are a few other quotes on family and place:
Like maybe any young woman that time, I thought marriage as promises to be kept until death, as having a house, living together, sleeping together, raising children. But Virgil’s and my marriage was going to have to be more than that. It was going to have to be a part of a place already decided for it, and part of a story begun long ago and going on. p. 33.
Speaking of her first in-laws: They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere. p. 41
Berry writes this touching story though the eyes of Hannah Coulter, who, widowed twice and reflecting on her years, tells of people woven into her life and their collective geographic lens on the world, Port William, Kentucky. It is a story of great gratitude for small things in which Berry captures the heart of a woman, a wife, a widow, and a mother. Speaking of her daughter Margaret, Hannah says,
To know that I was known by a new living being, who had not existed until she was made in my body by my desire and brought for into the world by my pain and strength – that changed me. p. 54
I read Hannah Coulter about the same time I read Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead, a wonderful novel written by a woman in a man’s voice. Both of these books demonstrate powerful emotions and an uncanny ability of the authors to speak for the opposite sex in ways that avoid stereotype or caricature.
Wendell Berry fans already know of his compact style which is eloquent in its simplicity. A person could learn good grammar and effective punctuation by reading nothing but his books. The writing is clear and carries the reader from one image, one insight, to the next with ease.
Berry’s book makes Bucket Book status for me because of the way he locates life in community and in a community. The sweetness of Hannah’s character is not pollyannaish; rather, just the opposite. It is very real, sharpened by grief and disappointment, but never hardened.
The first time I read this book I wanted to highlight each of Hannah’s insights and words of wisdom. I found, however, that I would have to highlight so many sentences and paragraphs that they would often run together. The second time through the novel I didn’t want to bother with marking points to remember. I simply wanted to enjoy the kindness of Hannah’s heart and words, as when she remembered while grieving Virgil and carrying a half-orphaned daughter who would never know her father:
Kindness kept us alive. It made us think of each other. p. 50.
Berry has written, not only a good novel, but a needed message for our age. The poor have the Rodeway Inn, while the wealthy have multiple retirement homes, none more “home” than the other. When planning for their death, they say, “Just scatter my ashes at the lake” because they have no place where family and friends might come years from now to pay respects. Unable to answer the question, “Where shall I be buried,” they will be as scattered in death as they were in life. People are uprooted from a defining place all along the economic scale. Hannah Coulter makes readers want to connect to story that is larger and longer than their own. It makes them want to belong somewhere and to help other sojourners to belong as well.
I think again about the young man with the memorial tattoo on his calf and a father dying at the Rodeway Inn. Before he left, I prayed with him for his strength and for an easy death for his father. In hindsight I should also have prayed for more kindness to come into his life. A permanent kindness that comes with regularity and with tenderness. I should have also prayed for a place and a people of which he could be a part, so that, when the time comes for his own parting, it will be from a home – and surrounded by those who know his story as a faithful son and will tell it with gladness.
I first read Tobacco Road in the 1970’s. Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel of the rural south taught me lessons about poverty that have stayed with me for a lifetime. These are valuable lessons for a pastor who deals with requests for help every week from people in need.
I’ve reread the book in order to comment on it here. Additionally I’ve looked at a dozen reviews on popular websites. My conclusion? Many readers clearly don’t know enough poor people to analyze the book adequately.
In the past 25 years I performed marriage ceremonies for two couples who were borderline in competence for marriage. The clerk in the local probate office nearly threw me out when I attempted to help one of these couples obtain a license. Why did I perform those ceremonies? Because Erskine Caldwell’s character, Sister Bessie, taught me that sometimes, in the underclasses of ingrained poverty, marriage is about desperation. Certainly Sister Bessie is a sexually charged character and some her motives are as base as motives can get. But she’s also desperate to sleep under a roof that doesn’t leak every time it rains. The couples I married were desperate to join limited abilities and resources to escape homelessness or helplessness. I still believe I helped those couples find the best chance to survive by marrying them. If you dare, read Caldwell’s short story “The Masses of Men” for an even darker picture of poverty’s desperation. I read it not long after reading Tobacco Road and I still don’t like thinking about it.
I also learned from Tobacco Road that handing out money may stem a crisis for some people in poverty’s cycle, but it rarely cures the long term problem for them. A man once sat in my office and told me how he had mashed the accelerator to the floor in his car. “I told that transmission,” he said, “you’re gonna shift or blow. Well, it blew. Now I needs money to fix it so I can get to work.” I wanted to weep. In his story I heard echoes of Dude Lester’s treatment of Sister Bessie’s new car, which was ruined in a day and practically destroyed in a week. All the money in the world would not have lifted the Lester family or Sister Bessie out of poverty.
Let me pause for a moment, lest you think I am painting every poor person with the same brush. The poor are no more all alike than are the wealthy. There are people who work hard to escape poverty’s grasp (illustrated by Jeeter’s older children, who described but never seen). They may not have new clothes, but they always have clean clothes. I know poor individuals who save a small amount out a week’s paycheck that wouldn’t support many reviewers of this book for a day. When crises come, they may ask for help, but they only need a bridge over their immediate problem. Deeply ingrained poverty, however, can normalize procrastination and lethargy. The saddest moment in the book is when Dude becomes the bearer of his father’s unfulfilled dream of raising a crop of cotton. Jester, Sister Bessie, and Dude could win the lottery and they would never have enough money. Incentive would help them more. The key for people in helping professions is to weigh the need to alleviate desperation versus creating dependency. You will never know the struggle of that decision unless you actually know the people involved in the crisis.
Laziness and lust are never more than a page away. Perhaps Caldwell wants us to know that only lust can compete with hunger as a dominating motive in the human heart. Death is careless and painfully callous.
Reviewers debate whether Tobacco Road in a tragedy or a comedy. Certainly there are elements of both. How readers makes that determination will be based on how well they know the South and how well acquainted they are with poverty. I lean toward describing it as tragedy, but find no tragic hero.
Here are a few quotations, with page numbers from the 1995 edition, published by UGA Press:
Down there on the tobacco no one ever laughed. p. 31.
Prayer always did a man more good, she said, if there was something he was ashamed of. p. 45
There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter’s mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was so much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow…things had been going along that easy for almost a lifetime now….p. 60.
Good folks don’t want God to send them sermons by cussing preachers. p. 158.
He (Jeeter) still could not understand why he had nothing, and would never have anything, and there was no one who knew and could tell him. It was the unsolved mystery of his life. p. 173.
My first interest in the stock market began when I was six. That’s right – six. I remember being at my grandparents house. We ate dinner after the Huntley-Brinkley Report, which always included a brief statement about three Dow-Jones indices: the Industrials, the Utilities, and the Rails (known today as the Transportation Index). I can’t remember a specific conversation, but I do remember knowing that a portion of my grandfather’s retirement was in a stock called Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon). It was better for his stock to be up than it was for it to be down.
When I was in junior and senior high school, my father worked for Xerox. At the time Xerox was one of the Nifty Fifty – the darling stocks of Wall Street – and from conversations between my parents, I learned that owning stock in a company means you owned portion of the company; stock prices often split after it went up for a long period of time; stocks paid and increased their dividends. I also learned that most of the products we used around the house were made by companies whose stock could be purchased. My grandmother’s Joy dishwashing liquid was made by Proctor and Gamble, as was my Crest toothpaste. Holley carburetors (I was a muscle car enthusiast) were made by Colt Industries. I was intrigued and continued to pay attention to the stock market report on the evening news. Occasionally I’d look at a discarded copy of the Wall Street Journal to pick up information on other companies associated with products we used every day.
By the time Cherry and I were married and I entered seminary, we had scraped together $500. It was hard to sell my new bride on the idea, but we eventually invested in the 18 shares of Squibb Corporation. Somewhere along this journey, I learned of Benjamin Graham’s classic work, The Intelligent Investor. My wife’s skeptical attitude about buying a stock at our age and with our limited resources convinced me that if I was going to be an investor, I had better be intelligent about it. So I checked the book out of the public library and read it.
I learned about PE ratios, margins of safety, and book value. In a day that was not only pre-internet, but pre-calculator, Graham’s book taught me formulas I used to performed my own manual calculations on companies that were candidates for investment. I spent many Mondays in the Louisville Public Library reading S&P stock summaries and performing calculations from Graham’s book.
Across the years I’ve tried to participate in saving for my daughters’ college educations an in my retirement planning. Thanks to Excel and a thousand websites, I don’t have to crunch numbers with a pencil and paper. Neither do I stick to strict Graham formulas when considering and investment. But The Intelligent Investor taught me what to look for, how to make reasoned decisions about a stock, and what data really matters.
My interest in economics and markets has never abated. The Intelligent Investor provided a key piece of my informal education in these areas.
In 1955, Rudolph Flesh wrote a critique of reading education, which he entitled, Why Johnny Can’t Read. The phrase “why Johnny can’t” found traction in American culture; thus, in 1974, when Morris Cline wrote an indictment on the changes in math education, he borrowed heavily from Flesch when he called his book Why Johnny Can’t Add. Fast forward another two decades to 1992. William Kilpatrick challenged the nation’s drift away from morality and virtues in Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. Kilpatrick saw the same type of failure demonstrated in in reading and math education replicated in character education.
According to Kilpatrick, the moral education framework in our country was failing children and American culture. The system did not communicate the common core of accepted virtues which serve as the norm for constructive participation in society. One might expect such a book like Kilpatrick’s to tend toward moralism or preachiness in tone, but the author avoids these temptations. The end product is one of my personal “bucket books,” an essential influence in my life.
The Boston College professor makes four salient point in his thesis. First, various forms of a failed moral education relied primarily on information to influence students toward safe and healthy conduct. He uses as his examples the approaches to drug and sex education which were common to the era of his writing. The contemporary wisdom was to teach youth facts about these subjects in the hope that they would make good decisions about them. Kilpatrick believed the deficiency of this approach centered on the fact that it did not provide a character component.
On the need for common virtues to ground society, Kilpatrick says:
According to Aristotle, a culture that neglects to cultivate good habits will soon find itself the prisoner of bad habits. p. 98
Communities and cultures depend for their existence on shared knowledge. Without such specific knowledge and a shared ethos, it becomes difficult for members of a community to communicate and cooperate. Those without this knowledge will always be condemned to the margins of society. If the knowledge deficit becomes widespread, the culture will collapse. p. 117
With regard to morally neutral sex education, he asks:
How safe is any sex without character? p. 63
Kilpatrick’s second point focused on a common practice of moral education from the 1970’s and 1980’s: Values Clarification. VC most often presented moral dilemmas to children or youth and asked them to resolve the dilemma based on their feelings or prejudices. The dilemmas might present a hypothetical group of thirteen people occupying a fallout shelter designed for twelve. In an unfortunate foreshadowing of the popular Survivor TV show, classes (and church youth groups) were asked to determine which individual to exclude from the shelter: the pregnant teen, the selfish business owner, the local drug dealer, etc. Kilpatrick correctly pointed out that such exercises were popular with teachers because they created engaged discussion, but they failed youth because they provided no basis for making the decision beyond the opinions of the participants.
Kilpatrick’s solution was not to teach the morally correct answers to such dilemmas. Nor was it to preach certain values vis a vis all other values. Instead, Kilpatrick’s thesis was to ground children and youth in virtues. The difference between values and virtues is a key distinction in all character education and represents Kilpatrick’s third point. Values are always debatable. Who’s values trump all other values? Virtues, on the other hand, are qualities of character that pass the test of time and cross all cultures.
[My review on How Children Succeed highlights the importance of functional virtues like grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity for a fulfilling life.]
The solution offered by Kilpatrick, and the fourth point I take form the book, is to capture the imagination of youth with classic stories of virtue. Examples of virtue inspire virtue in others. Kilpatrick offers a significant portion of the book to an annotated list of age-appropriate classics that encourage time tested qualities of character. The list includes such works as Diary of a Young Girl and Gulliver’s Travels. Kilpatrick also suggests music and singing as a way to inspire virtues.
Kilpatrick’s book introduced me to the concept of character education, along with the role of stories and songs as a part of that process. These approaches to teaching character evolved into an approach of “teaching” faith, which we have called “faith development” here at First Baptist Church of Rome. Faith Development, as we practice it, stems from the belief that children need exposure to a core of Bible stories and scripture verses that serve as a foundation to a more mature faith later. Too often we’ve asked children “what does this (Bible) story mean to you?” as if children come with a built in understanding of all faith matters.
This error reflects the same type of mistake made in Values Clarification. Instead, we’ve taken the approach that, at the earliest ages, children need to be taught specifics stories, led to memorize specific scripture passages, and to sing particular songs of faith – all of which provide a foundation of knowledge about matters of faith. Later in life, as they grow and mature, the basics serve as the foundation for the faith they appropriate as their own.
Kilpatrick’s book in on my list of life -important books because it served as the catalyst for one of the most distinctive part of our our congregation’s ministry to children and youth. Here are a few more quotes:
The first incident happened five or six years ago during an exam. One of the questions concerned sex education and contained the word “abstinence.” It was a poor choice of words. In a few minutes a student came up to my desk. “What’s abstinence?” she asked. I thought for a moment, then said, “Oh, just substitute the word ‘chastity.’” There was a brief pause, then . . . “What’s chastity?” she asked. I mentioned the incident the next semester to another class, thinking that it might amuse them, but I was wrong again. Half of them had never heard of “chastity” either. I was reminded of Orwell’s observation about the difficulty of practicing a virtue or principle when one lacks the very words for expressing it. p. 118
Referring to Bruno Bettelheim: “The question for a child,” says Bettelheim, “is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’” p. 167
It is a myth that parents don’t have the right to instill their values in their children. Once again, the standard dogma here is that children must create their own values. But, of course, children have precious little chance to do that, since that the rest of the culture has no qualms about imposing values. Does it make sense for parents to remain neutral bystanders when everyone else—from scriptwriters, to entertainers, to advertisers, to sex educators—insists on selling their values to children? p. 249
I read because my father read to me. And because he’d read to me, when my time came I knew intuitively there is a torch that is supposed to be passed from one generation to the next. And through countless nights of reading I began to realize that when enough of the torchbearers—parents and teachers—stop passing the torches, a culture begins to die. p. 267
The owner of a nearby auto repair business serves on the board of the local Boys and Girls Club. While waiting for an oil change in his shop, I noticed a printed page, framed and hanging on the wall of the area reserved for customer seating. It was the story f the Star Thrower. You’ve heard it before. The most common version is about a man who walks along the beach and sees a boy throwing star fish into the sea. There are dozens, or hundreds of starfish on the beach and the man challenges the boy, “There are too many. You can’t make a difference.” And the boy throws another starfish into the waves and says, “It makes a difference for that one.” The story is used by organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and hundreds of pastors in need of an illustration in a sermon to say one person can make a difference.
Unlike many preacher stories it is true. Unfortunately it is shortened and condensed to a point that the common versions miss the most poignant parts of the story.
The author is Loren Eiseley and the events happened to him in the Galapagos Islands. The thrower was not a boy, but a man Eiseley encountered after a storm when many shell collectors combed the beach, looking for something to sell. “Do you collect shells?” Eiseley asked the man who was throwing starfish. The thrower replied, “Only ones like this…and only for the living.”
The thrower stooped again, and skipped another star neatly across the water. “The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.” He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes. “No, I do not collect,” I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. “neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.” I nodded and walked away, leaving him there with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.
The encounter challenged Eiseley, a naturalist and Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. In his work, Eiseley developed the conviction that the universe is chaotic and all creatures are selfish, looking after their own survival. Yet, here was the Star Thrower, whose purpose was to fight wanton forces of nature and to save life. After a long night wrestling in his soul, Eiseley comes to the self awareness
“But I do love the world,” I whispered to the empty room. I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf the singing bird which falls and is not seen again, the lost ones, the failures of the world.” Thus was the renunciation of my scientific heritage.
At dawn, Eiseley left his room with the focused mission to find the Star Thrower again. .
I found him on a projecting point of land in the sweet rain-swept morning. Silently, I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the wave. I spoke once briefly. “I understand,” I said, “call me another thrower.” Only then I allowed myself to think. He is not alone any longer. After us there will be others. We were part of the rainbow – like the drawing of a circle in men’s minds, the circle of perfection. I picked and flung another star. I could feel the movement in my body. It was like a sowing – the sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale. I looked back over my shoulder, and small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung one more. I never looked back again. The task we assumed was too immense for gazing. I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death, the burning sun, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save, a thrower who loved not man, but life.
“Call me another thrower.” The story is not complete until Eiseley picks up the mission to love the “small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf the singing bird which falls and is not seen again, the lost ones, the failures of the world” It is about joining the battle against “the insatiable waters of death” that threaten our world.
In the book, there are other essays which provide vivid insights into additional areas of life. In “The Bird and the Machine” Eiseley tells of a time in the Rockies when he stumbled upon an unused cabin in the Rockies. He was collecting fauna and realized there were birds inside. Not realizing the kind of birds he hunted, Eiseley reached into a dark eave and came out with a male sparrow hawk, which put up quite a struggle. The ensuing confusion allowed the mate of captured hawk to escape. The male was placed in an appropriate cage and awaited transport back to civilization.
The next morning was one we dream about if we were to visit the Rockies: a deep blue sky with rocky outcroppings everywhere pointing upward. A good day to be alive. Eiseley looked for the mate, but saw no trace.
An impulse led him to release the male hawk, captured the day before. He removed it from the cage and placed it on the ground. In his words:
He lay there a long minute without hope, unmoving, his eyes still fixed on that blue vault above him. It must’ve been that he was already so far away and heart that he never felt the release from my hand. He never even stood. He just lay with his breast against the grass.
In the next second after that long minute he was gone. Like a flicker of light, he had vanished with my eyes, full on him, but without actually seeing even a premonitory wing beat. He was gone straight into that towering emptiness of light and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate. For another long moment there was silence. I could not see him. The light was too intense. Then, from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down.
I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing farther up. Straight out of the sun’s eye, where she must’ve been soaring restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such an unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years…
I saw them both now. He was rising fast to meet her. They met in a great soaring gyre that turned into a whirling circle and a dance of wings. Once more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere in the upper regions beyond the eyes of men. (p. 90f)
The Star Thrower makes my list of Bucket Books for a variety of reasons. One is Eiseley’s writing ability. He is a master and most people could learn a bit about eloquence from reading any of his works. But the primary reason is the power of his vision – to see life – and call his readers to a higher and nobler place. After reading the story of the hawks, who does not desire to be more faithful to those we love? If birds exhibit fidelity, then why can’t we? Who does not want to participate in a selfless mission against the insatiable waters of death after reading the “Star Thrower?” Reading Eiseley makes me a better person.
I’ve read all of Eiseley’s books and invite you to do the same.
What do the following scenarios have in common: repairing a car, gambling, a bad relationship, a poor book or movie, a war, an economic investment, a career choice? Each of these situations have the potential to put us in a position where we might have “too much invested to quit.”
For example, once you’ve invested $2000 in a new transmission for a older car, what do you do if the AC system goes and needs $2000 to make it work? Another $2000 is a huge amount, but you just spent $2000 on the transmission. Do you cut your loss and purchase a new car for $30,000, or do you have too much invested to quit and decide to pay the second $2000? What happens when the alternator goes out a month later? You get the idea.
The same phenomenon occurs when a poker player has lost money, but feels he/she can recoup the time and money spent with just one more hand. Also similar is watching a movie for two hours, only to have the network increase the frequency and duration of commercials. The last hour you are watching more commercials than movie, but you have too much time invested to turn it off and not see how it turns out.
Allan Teger’s 1980 book, Too Much Invested to Quit, explores the psychology of such situations, particularly as they pertain to escalating conflict. Teger’s insights reveal that we participate in TMITQ (my own abbreviation) situations, even when we recognize them for what they are. And, there are times where the tendency to do so is used against us in sales and marketing. Teger admits falling prey to the temptation to invest too much even during his study of particular instances where he knew he was being targeted by TMITQ tactics. It is a powerful psychological paradigm.
The most intriguing part of the book is the $1.00 auction game, which was developed to reveal the TMITQ paradigm in a setting where psychologists could study it behavior.
The game consists of an auction in which a dollar bill is offered for sale. As in all auctions, the person with the highest bid pays his/her last bid and receives the prize, in this case the dollar. The auction proceeds as a normal auction except for one additional rule. The second highest bidder is required to pay his/her last bid, although the second highest bidder receives no prize….The two highest bidders are both reluctant to quit the auction once they have made bids, for that would mean the loss of all previous investments. Once the bidding reaches one dollar, the parties are bidding on the dollar to win a dollar. From that point on, neither bidder can make a profit, even if they win….Now the contest is to see which party will lose the least.(p. 12f)
In the majority of cases, the dollar sells for more than $1, in some instances going for as much as $20. The book analyzes motives for starting a bid and for continuing to bid. Several chapters examine group studies and statistics about participation in the dollar bill auction. The later chapters will be more important to psychologists interested in the empirical data behind the study.
The book makes my bucket list of books because it revealed to me the TMITQ paradigm. Many times across the years, from repairing a car, to reading a book, to personnel administration, I have made decisions based on the self awareness this book allowed. The background knowledge forced me to decide if I was making a good decision or just following a default path toward more and deeper investments in a losing situation. The book has no formulas for making these decisions, it simply allows individuals to see a TMITQ situation for what it is, instead of blindly following the present course of action.
This book has been long out of print. I have seen copies advertised on the internet for upwards of $100, indicating its insightfulness. The typeface is dated and hard to read by current standards. Obviously, some details are out of date, such as the attractiveness of winning $1 in an auction. Experimenters may want to try $10 or $20 bills to achieve the same participation today.
If you run a business, manage personnel, read a bad book or engage in conflict, having read Too Much Invested to Quit, will encourage you to make a conscious decision about future actions, instead of rushing headlong toward potentially greater losses. I would encourage those who write government policy (on both sides the aisle) to read this book.
In the 1980’s Scott Peck was one of the most popular authors writing in the self-help genre. The Road Less Traveled became a small industry with follow up books like, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, Meditations from the Road Less Traveled, etc. I’ve read 5-6 Peck books, but none have had an impact as powerful as The People of the Lie.
The premise of the book is that there is a difference between moral failure and evil. The difference is not a matter of degree; evil people do not simply sin more than bad people. The difference is in the intricate structures of denial that evil people build around themselves. They build a self image of perfection and refuse to accept the possibility of their own error. Peck points out that we can be forgiven and healed of any sin, except the sin of believing we have no sin, which is the problem with evil people. As “malignant narcissists,” evil people destroy anyone and anything that gets in their way. They do this because their sole motivation in life is to gain power. Perhaps the most disturbing quality of evil individuals is their ability to portray a morally good aura around their lives. On the surface they are good people, admired in the community, church, or civic club.
Peck’s theory sounds plausible in print, but it is utterly terrifying in real life. The majority of evil people are not the obvious Hitler’s or drug dealers, waiting to steal the innocence of our children. Rather, they are the respected neighbors, business leaders. Or church leaders.
I learned this fact while interviewing with a search committee in the 1980’s. The interview lasted over several weeks, with multiple trips by members of the search committee to visit me, and with my trips to their home turf. The longer the discussions lasted, the more troubled I became. I saw multiple dynamics in the committee and in the church that disturbed me. On one of my last trips, I had the opportunity to meet with a man who had previously served on the church staff. He and his wife greeted me in their home. As we became more comfortable with each other, the couple began to recount times that they had been sabotaged and damaged by three main church leaders. They painted a dark picture of half-lies, power grabs… and respectability. I finally gained the nerve to ask if they had read People of the Lie. The wife left the room and returned with a dog-eared, marked-up copy of Peck’s book. She began to leaf through the pages, showing me where she had written the names of the three men in the margins. Wherever one of these men seemed to illustrate Peck’s observations, she wrote his name beside the text. The book was full of these three names. I left their home and stopped the interview with the committee. All congregations have wonderful members, as I’m sure does that particular church. But over 30+ years, it also has a history of power-grabs and splits. If only one-third of what that minister’s wife suspected was true…. Well, I understand the trajectory of that congregation’s history.
In my life I have known many people who are disagreeable, ornery, hateful, controlling, and selfish. But I’ve only known three people that I would classify as evil – evil as defined in People of the Lie. The most frightening thing about all three has been their respectability. I wasn’t sure, if needed, I could get anyone to believe what I suspected about them. Without Peck’s book, I might not have believed myself.
Ever since President Bush uttered his “axis of evil” comments, society has debated the use of the word “evil.” Isn’t it a judgmental term? Who has the right to declare another person or nation as “evil?” For me the issue is not judgment; rather the issue is discernment. And there are times when leaders must be discerning in order to know what they are facing. Peck’s book has provided me with help in discerning the nature and motivation of individuals that I have considered evil.
If you find yourself wondering if the “evil” designation applies to someone in your life, search malignant narcissist or destructive narcissist on the internet. I have come to believe that addictions are easier to overcome than extreme narcissistic tendencies. I am not wise enough to know whether or not every malignant narcissist is evil, but they are usually dangerous.
People of the Lie does take some interesting twists in later chapters, particularly in regard to possession and exorcisms. Before writing this review I skimmed the book again. I find the chapters on possession and exorcism interesting, but outside my own experience. Group evil is explored in a chapter on the My Lai massacre in the Viet Nam War. Younger readers may not be able to relate to the alarming realization that American soldiers had the capacity for such brutality. Consequently the impact of the massacre’s revelation to the public may be lost 40 years after the fact.
I often recommend this book to young ministers as a way of building a framework to recognize and address evil. Although some question the later chapters, I have never had anyone say the book was not helpful. People of the Lie has helped me in a few, critical junctures of life and I rate it as one of the 50 most influential books I’ve read. Here are a few brief excerpts.
It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin, but the refusal to acknowledge it. p. 69
The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly,” are crucial to understanding the morality of evil. While they [evil individuals] seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their goodness is on a level of pretense. It is, in fact, a lie. This is why they are “people of the lie.” p. 75
The evil deny the suffering of their guilt -the painful awareness of their sin, inadequacy, and imperfection, by casting pain onto others through projection and scapegoating. They themselves may not suffer, but those around them do. They cause suffering. The evil create for those under their dominion a miniature sick society. pp. 123ff
I’m cheating. This Bucket Book is a three-for-one special that includes the three volumes from John Le Carre that features George Smiley as the protagonist: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. These book comprise the “Karla Trilogy,” in which Smiley (an employee of British Intelligence MI6) attempts to outsmart Karla, his KGB opposite.
Le Carre is the master teller of spy stories, but his books represent anti-James Bond tales. Smiley is old and frumpy, not debonair and muscular. The plots are carried by the moral dilemmas of the characters and author’s insights into their struggles, not by fast-paced action. While James Bond used cigarette guns or an Aston Martin with machine guns to do his job, Smiley’s tradecraft includes the knowledge of how to get a someone to tell secrets without asking. Instead of winning all the women, Smiley constantly deals with the distraction of a beautiful wife, whose chief function in the novels is to distract him from his case due to her unfaithfulness. James Bond may be the ultimate action hero, but George Smiley is the ultimate moral hero. He struggles, yes. But principles, convictions, and past loyalties shape his actions and torment his soul.
If you are looking for a page-turning, fast paced beach read, none of these may be your first choice. But if you are intrigued by the ways men and women maintain their convictions and justify their sins, how average people rise to heroic stature in the face of certain defeat, what people under stress say to themselves when making decisions about loyalty and betrayal, Le Carre will be an author you enjoy. Be prepared for plenty of British idioms and slang, plus wonderful English understatement. I’ve read very few novels twice in my life; the three listed above represents the only series I’ve read twice, with the readings separated by 20+ years.
Here are some quotes to give you an idea of Le Carre’s insights into the heart:
“Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.”
(Speaking of a widower) “We men who cook for ourselves are half-creatures, he thought as he scanned the two shelves, tugged out the saucepan and the frying-pan, poked among the cayenne and paprika. Anywhere else in the house—even in bed—you can cut yourself off, read your books, deceive yourself that solitude is best. But in the kitchen the signs of incompleteness are too strident. Half of one black loaf. Half of one coarse sausage. Half an onion. Half a pint of milk. Half a lemon. Half a packet of black tea. Half a life.”
“By repetition, each lie becomes an irreversible fact upon which other lies are constructed.”
As a teenager I read the science fiction classics: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, H.G. Wells, plus a few whose names I’ve forgotten. I stopped in my late teens, thinking that science fiction was nerdy. Having put aside childish things, I later discounted horror writers like Stephen King, lumping his work into the same general category as science fiction. Both genres were fantasy. Because I shunned King’s books, I also ignored movies made from them. I never saw Carrie or the Shining, although I know Carrie made Cissy Spacek famous and Jack Nicholson made The Shining creepy. Then about, 15 years ago, I wanted a book to take to the beach. I wanted a thick and entertaining read that would last all week. Weighing in at 1141 pages, The Stand looked promising. After a long week under an umbrella, I can, at last, admit I misjudged King and changed my mind about on a few things about fantasy, whether it be science fiction or “horror.”
The plot of The Stand may be familiar to you. A super virus escapes a government facility and infects most of the world. A small percentage of people have life-saving antibodies which help them survive in a desolate world. The survivors polarize into two groups. The forces of good make their way to Colorado. The forces of darkness head to Las Vegas. Heroes emerge along the way to the Rockies and villains reveal themselves while responding to the gravitational pull of destruction coming from the desert. Their journeys are arduous and often unclear, but eventually the two camps both reach critical mass, setting up a climactic conflict. Randall Flagg, the ageless agent of darkness, commands the forces of evil. Flagg and other characters with the initials “R.F.” appear in many King novels, always as villains.
King may write in the “horror” genre, but he understands the human heart. Consequently, the Stand’s novel-long apocalyptic battle between good and evil serves as the stage for the characters’ motives and actions. Here are two of King’s insights.
They filed in through the gate that Ralph opened and she felt her sin, the one she thought of as the mother of sin. The father of sin was theft; every one of the Ten Commandments boiled down to “Thou shall not steal.” Murder was the theft of a life, adultery the theft of a wife, covetousness the secret, slinking theft that took place in the cave of the heart. Blasphemy was the theft of God’s name, swiped fro the House of the Lord and sent to walk the streets like a strutting whore. She had never been much of a thief, a minor pilferer from time to time at worst. The mother of sin was pride. (p. 645)
A boy does not need a father unless he is a good father, but a good father is indispensable. (p. 795)
After The Stand, I read several other King novels, including the Dark Tower series. I enjoyed the series, but found the ending a bit disappointing. King’s writing himself into the series as a character seems forced.
The Stand makes Bucket List status for me based on its epic portrayal of good versus evil. I also give it credit for opening up to me literature genres I’d passed by. Recently I was in the bookstore looking over the table of summer reading for high school students. I saw several of the science fiction classics there and skimmed a few that I read decades ago. Remembering the story lines and characters I understood the reason for their presence on the table. The genre doesn’t matter as long as the plot and characterizations are strong. You don’t have to be Sheldon or Leonard from Big Bang Theory to read and appreciate them, particularly when the author captures the timeless fears, conflicts, and aspirations of the human heart. I’ve come to appreciate Orson Scott Card (Speaker for the Dead informs the way I conduct funerals), but I have to admit that I’ve had a hard time with Neil Gaiman, despite his overwhelming popularity. I read every one of The Wool series on Kindle. I thought they were great stories.
Summer is here, why not use it as a time to venture past your normal categories of reading. Perhaps you’ll find something you hadn’t expected.
I’ve spent a major portion of my life trying to understand people, which, of course, includes trying to understand myself. The single-most helpful book in this effort is Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. In this book, Goleman not only explains what makes up emotional intelligence (EQ), he also explains why being a reasonably smart person (IQ) does not necessarily correlate to being relationally healthy. We have all heard the cliché about an individual who is “book smart, but has no common sense.” Goleman’s book includes information about people who are “book smart,” but who have limited awareness of people’s feelings or nonverbal cues. They may even have no awareness of their own motives, feelings, or how they are perceived. They have low EQ.
Would you like some examples of how EQ plays itself out in daily life? Here are some real examples from people no one can identify, plus they are deceased or in another state. A man is beet-red in the face and gritting his teeth as he talks to me about his wife. My response is, “I can tell this conversation makes you angry.” His reply to me was, “I – AM – NOT – ANGRY!” Whoa. He was very angry; he was just in a state of denial. A woman I know did not get her way and kept telling me how hurt she was. She, too, was angry. But convincing herself she was hurt, rather than angry, allowed her to play the victim instead of dealing honestly with the issue. She was well-practiced at the art of manipulation, and she could have passed a lie detector test denying anger.
Both of those examples deal with failure to understand self. Other situations Goleman describes include people who cannot accurately read emotions in others and people who are oblivious to another person’s legitimate boundaries. Ever had someone invade your emotional space or get in your business without an invitation? Then you’ve dealt with low EQ situations.
Here are a couple of quotations from the book:
College students in a psychological test were told, “Although you set your goal of getting a B in a class, when you get your first exam score worth 30% of your final grade, you discover you have received a D. It is now one week after you learned about the D grade, what do you do? Researchers found that hope made all the difference. The response by students with high levels of hope was to work harder and think of a range of things that they might try to do to bolster their grades. Students with moderate levels of hope thought of ways they might bring up their grade but had far less determination to do so. Students with low levels of hope gave up altogether. The test giver discovered that hope was the better predictor of first semester grades than were scores on the SAT. [p. 86]
A psychological thought line is common to rapist, child molesters and many perpetrators of family violence alike. They are incapable of empathy. The inability to feel their victim’s pain allows them to tell themselves lies that encourage their crime. For rapists, the lies include: women really want to be raped, or if she resists, she is just playing hard to get. For molesters: I’m not hurting the child, just showing love. [p. 106]
As I entered a restaurant on a recent evening, a young man stalked out the door, his face set in expression both stony and sullen. Close on his heels, a young woman came running, her fists desperately pounding his back while she yelled obscenities saying, “Come back here and be nice to me.” [p. 130]
Marlene Lenick had a dispute with her husband, Michael. He wanted to watch the Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles game. She wanted to watch the news. As he settled down to watch the game, Mrs. Lenick told him she had had enough of football, went into the bedroom to fetch a .38-caliber handgun and shot him twice as he sat watching the game in the den. Mrs. Lenick was charged with aggravated assault and freed on a $50,000 bond. Mr. Lenick was listed in good condition recovering from the bullets that grazed his abdomen and tunneled through his left shoulder-blade and neck. [p. 142]
Being prone to anger is a stronger predictor of dying young than are habits of smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. [p. 170]
One survivor of the Holocaust said, “If you’ve been through Auschwitz and you don’t have nightmares, then you’re not normal. [p. 202]
Emotional Intelligence was selected by Time as one of the 25 most influential management books ever. Goleman followed it with other books, such as Primal Leadership (on leading with EQ), Vital Lies, Simple Truths, The Psychology of Self Deception, and a number of others. Primal Leadership is one of the best leadership books I’ve read, and the issue of self-deception is one of the most critical issues many people face; I highly recommend both of those books. You may also want to take a look at Goleman’s website.