Writing is an Itch. This is a place to scratch.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Wright Stuff

After I graduated college, my wife and I left California for graduate studies in Massachusetts. My intended career? Teaching. But before we left, one of my professors asked me to stop by his office because he had some parting words for me. He has, himself, since parted. His name was Ronald Wright. I had come to love this professor for his academic brilliance combined with an almost childlike Christian piety. No, not almost.

So you can understand that I did not mind in the least having to take the hour+ drive in Los Angeles and Orange County traffic to my alma mater. I was elated in fact. Prof. Wright wants to say something to me before we leave. I was prepared to write it down.

When I arrived at his office, he was, as usual, busying himself grading mounds of exams, essays and research papers. (Grading -- I speak now as a teacher -- the one thing without which teaching would be the world's perfect profession.) I knocked at the open doorway; he looked up.

"Ah, Mr. Rivera, what can I do for you?"

"You called and told me you had something you wanted to tell me before we left for graduate school?"

"Oh, yes." Pause. "Yes, brother. 'Let not many become teachers, for a such we shall incur a stricter judgment.'" [James 3:1]

I spent over an hour in the traffic purgatory of the world for that? You have to know that I was expecting something more like: "For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)

I thought Prof. Wright liked me. My academic enthusiasm was unparalleled; my papers were "a joy to read," and the models he had other students read: "This, ladies and gentleman," he'd say holding up my latest paper, "is what I'm looking for."

"Let not many be teachers..." It was as anti-climatic a thing one could say to an aspiring teacher as could be imagined. But that was many years ago. I've learned something about what it means since then, and it is something that is actually applicable to every person, not just teachers, though of course those who "know more" are accountable for more. It's about the influence and legacy we leave on others, for good or ill. It's about the difference between believing and acting, saying and living, orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Goodness, righteousness, universal humanness are never expendable to any religious orthodoxy. They are the things that make religion believable and worth practicing at all. A passage in the Christian scriptures or "New Testament," summarizes the sentiment like this: You cannot claim to love God whom you've never seen, and not love the people whom you can see every day. (1 John 4:20; cf. Luke 10:27)

For me, the Wright stuff, that the claim to truth means very little unless that truth also makes us good towards others, is illustrated powerfully in Chiam Potok's 1967 book, The Chosen (from which a 1982 film was made). The story follows the unlikely friendship of two Jewish boys in New York City in the period surrounding World War II. One boy, Daniel, comes from a strict orthodox home of a rebbe, or Jewish spiritual and community leader. The other boy, Reuven, lives with his liberal Jewish dad who is one of the leading Zionists in the city.

Reuven cannot understand why Daniel considers his father such a great man. To Reuven he seems tyrannical because he never speaks to Daniel and will not let him make his own choices about is career and life path. Daniel (a brilliant young man with a photographic memory) does love and revere his father. But he does not want to go to Yeshiva and become the next rebbe, as is expected of him. Daniel wants to explore the world outside of Hasidic Judaism, go to secular university and become a psychologist.

The whole thing looks like it's going to end in a collision between the will of a seemingly tyrannical father and the dreams of the dutiful but frustrated son. In the end, however, the father is content to let his son go into the world and make his own choices. He reveals why.
...When my Daniel was four years old he read a book. But he didn't just read it, he swallowed the book like one would swallow food. And then he came to me and...told me the story that was in the book. And this story was about a man whose life was filled with suffering and with pain. But that didn't move Daniel. You know, Daniel was happy. He was happy because he realized, for the first time in his life, what a memory he had.

"Master of the universe," I cried, "what have you done to me? You give me a mind like this for a son? A heart I need for a son. A soul I need for a son. Compassion and mercy I need for my son. And above all, the strength to carry pain. That I need for my son."

But how was I to do this?...How was I to teach...this to the son that I love..and not lose the love of my son?

Then as he became older, and he became indifferent to people less brilliant than he thought he was, I saw what I had to do. I had to teach my Daniel through the wisdom and the pain of silence..as my father did to me....He became frightened...bewildered. But slowly, he began to understand that other people are alone in this world too. Other people are suffering. Other people are carrying pain. And then, in this silence we had between us, gradually his self-pride, his feeling of superiority, his indifference began to fade away. And he learned, through the wisdom and the pain of silence, that a mind without a heart is nothing.

So you think that I've been cruel? Maybe. Maybe, but...but I don't think so...because my beloved Daniel has learned. O, let him go, let him become a psychologist. Become a psychologist already. But you see, now I am not afraid. I have no fear because my Daniel is a Tzadik. He is a righteous man. And the world needs a righteous man.
So this is a tribute to my old professor. And if there is a heaven, as I do believe, then he is surely there. For he had more than orthodoxy. His faith moved him to live here as he believed we would live in the hereafter. He had what I now call the "Wright stuff." For years he had been inspiring his students with it. But there comes a time when we must consciously attempt to do the same. That legacy is what he was passing on to me that day in his office.

The man was goodness. Not the otherworldly implacable platonic perfection beyond the grasp of we poor matter-bound masses, smatterings of which only the most disciplined and gifted philosophical and religous minds could attain. But a universally recognizable "golden rule" goodness, walking erect, among us, here in this world. A truly inspirational human being, he is one of the chief reasons that I am a college professor today, and it remains a chief aim of my life to live out and pass along the Wright stuff.

Photo credits: "The Chosen," TheatreWorks, San Fancisco, CA, 2009.


Marie said...

Age does have it's positive side, doesn't it. The longer we live the more we begin to understand those things we dont' yet fully understand.

I often think back on experiences and things said and find that there was a message there waiting to be discovered.

I try to do and be good. A difficult thing to do. Sometimes my girls ask me how I tolerate certain people and their actions. I tell them that it may not be clear today why I do it, but it'll worth it in the end.

I don't want to lay on my death bed with regrets.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

I remember this great man; you sure have been fortunate to have come across many Godly people along our great journey together, my love. Now you are on the other side of the table and have been a blessing to your students, and to me! Bisous, moi

Edie Marie's Attic said...

Good Sunday to you Ruben! What a beautiful writing about a very special gentleman whose path crossed yours. That's what it's all about. So many people never "get it" do they? I think you could say it's the Purpose of Life that everyone struggles so hard to find and can't see it in front of their faces. It's the "Wright Stuff" we all should be striving to achieve in God's name for God to use through us.

Thank you for sharing such an incredible story! I can tell it came from the depths of your heart as a gift to all of us.

Christmas blessings! Sherry

Fete et Fleur said...

You are fortunate to have had this man in your life. This scripture is one that I have always shivered at. I've had arrogant teachers in my life, but thank goodness I've had many more like Ronald Wright.

Great post!

Love you!

Debbie said...

Ruben, as always, thank you for your comments on my blog. I almost emailed you to hurry up and post already! I missed reading your blog. You're so lucky to have had a mentor that inspired you and was an example of living, breathing goodness. I HAD to post on the CNN heroes. We need more programming like this. I really am so tired of celebrities and their dirty laundry, gossip and politicians who want to tell me how to think and the whole slew of "positive thinking" books that try to tell us we can "will" wealth and success into our lives. HA! Life is life. You can be as positive as you want and life will throw you a curve ball. Someone will get sick. Someone will die, a heart will be broken. There ARE no easy answers. There is NO SECRET. Even scripture doesn't give us the answers to the mysteries of life. We must try to be a good people. Have compassion and patience with others, see God in ourselves and others. And that is hard to do. Especially trying to love people who are difficult, rude, arrogant. And thank you for your prayers for Lauren. She's doing unbelievably well thank GOD.


The Dutchess said...

There are a few good people ..and they are the world biggets treasure..because they are the future! I am so happy that this man found YOU...He was just as fortunate to know you as you were to know him!!...He must have been thinking...there I see a good man..

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Good morning my love,
A sweet lady from Teacup Mosiacs came by to visit you but I see did not leave a comment. She told me that she enjoyed your post very much. Her blog is right up my alley....HORSES! We can look at her blog together. She is a "midwife to horses"! How cool is that.....
A ce soir, Moi

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh you sweet thang you! Thanks for visiting my blog and I have another idea for a winter story. Today when I was in the library with the kids, the librarian did a presentation that got my creative juices flowing! I can't wait to write it out! A ce soir, moi

Bonnie said...

A beautiful story within a story Ruben! I must tell you that you made me get up out of my chair in search of my dictionary re the word orthopraxy. I had never heard of it before.

I adore Little Women the book and all film incarnations of it. "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents!" I think the beginning is one of my favorite parts of the book.

The only movie I have seen that you mentioned was Ghandi and that was some time ago when it came out. I do remember having my eyes opened quite a bit. I also did not really know much about Ghandi's youth. The movie was epic and Ghandi an extraordinary man.

Hope you are staying warm!


Michelle Shaw said...

This was a wonderful way to begin Christmas with my family this morning, Ruben. This is what life is all about. With all of the religion in the world, you think people would live their lives with more goodness. At least, I certainly wish they would practice what they preach.

Your Professor Wright sounds an awful lot like my Professor Simmonds, a philosophy professor I had in college. He encouraged me to think about the world in new ways and to discover whom I was through learning, contemplating what was "good", and then putting those thoughts into the actions of my daily life. I still need to write him a letter to tell him how much he inspired me to become the person I am today. Thank you for reminding me how important it is for me to do this. Happy holidays!!!

Violet said...

What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it. I find the longer I am a Christian, the simpler the Truth is, and yet even more profound. I read pasages in scripture that jump out at me like I've never read them before... the Holy Spirit speaking to us through the Word and through others who remind us of what Jesus taught, like your mentor, and now you... ~ Violet