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Rod Dreher

Full life built on ordinary acts

The bad news, high school graduates, is you can't have it all. You aren't as free as you think you are. Sorry, but no matter what optimistic flapdoodle your commencement speaker tells you, that's the truth.

The good news is somebody's telling you this now, before you have to discover it on your own. I wish somebody had told me the same thing when I was under the mortarboard almost 25 years ago.

That morning, I was furious at my father. My friends were headed off to prestigious East Coast universities. I had a state-university scholarship, while my Ivy-bound classmates were taking out big student loans. Dad, jerk that he was, told me he couldn't let me go deeply into debt to finance an undergraduate degree.

As it turned out, that was one of the best things he ever did for his son. "Avoid debt" is a fairly prosaic prescription, but you will find life is far more prosaic than you think. A meaningful life is not usually built on grand gestures but, rather, on the habitual accumulation of ordinary ones.

A few years ago, I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and watched the south tower of the World Trade Center collapse. In the minute I had before police closed the bridge, I had to decide whether to turn back to Brooklyn to protect my wife and child or make a break for lower Manhattan and risk my life reporting on the biggest story of my lifetime.

I chose the dull, dutiful thing: to go home and look after my family. We now know that had I run toward the disaster, I almost certainly would have survived, would have gotten a great story and had tales of high adventure to tell my colleagues.

But there were countless small decisions I had made all my life before that fierce moment. I realized in the crucible that my family meant more to me than my career. Perhaps I chose wrongly, but I don't think so. The point is, by training myself to put my family first, I had made the decision to go home before I decided it.

Sooner or later, most of us will face our moment on the bridge. The little choices you make between now and then will determine what you do when it really matters.

What's more, unless you're an incurable romantic or an American politician, you eventually will learn that life is more tragic than you were led to believe. You will discover your own limits. You will fail at something, even if you succeed by the standards of the world.

That failure may save you; success may destroy you. A friend grew comfortably wealthy in high finance but looked around one day, horrified to see what luxury had done to his colleagues' character. Shaken, he left the firm and embraced his ancestors' Judaism. He eventually quit finance entirely, fearing the inevitable consequences of Wall Street's money-driven collective madness. They all thought they were invincible.

Four months later, the stock market crashed. Every one of his friends was wiped out. What happened to them is tragic, in a way, but not the worst thing. Leon Bloy, the French Catholic novelist, had it right when he ended one of his novels with the following line: "There is but one tragedy, not to be a saint."

In secular terms, this means the only thing that matters is a life of self-sacrificing virtue, whether a prince's or a pauper's. Don't be true to thine own self; be true to the truth. Most of us will never become rich or famous or even be remembered over time. But the capacity for everlasting greatness, as Bloy saw, lies within us all.

You don't fully control your fate, but you do control the formation of your character. That matters in ways we cannot foresee and can only appreciate once we lose the illusion we are self-created. George Eliot ended her novel Middlemarch with a line about the effect, over time, of ordinary goodness lived out by ordinary people like us: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

That's not optimistic, but it is true. It's the kind of realistic hope you can build a life on.

Full life built on ordinary acts 05/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 8:11am]

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