The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul

Infusing goodness, beauty, and truth into our public discourse

Issue No. 8

Gracious Reader,

On Tuesday morning, January 21st, my grandmother passed away after a months-long battle with cancer. She died in the comfort of her home of over two decades, surrounded by her five children, most of children’s spouses, and over fifteen grandchildren. I was privileged to be with her in what ended up being among her last days, but it still did not seem like enough time. In the days leading up to, and since, her passing, I’ve reflected on the most extraordinary elements of her life and legacy, which have greatly informed my view—and even my work—regarding the foundations of human relationships and community. She was exceptional in many ways, but I will limit myself to discussing on two: I call them The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul, and the Zeal for Hope, and making ordinary encounters extraordinary.

The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul

We are all familiar—either personally, or through news, history, or memoir—with the potential a single individual, especially a parent, has to make decisions that have unfortunate reverberations in the lives of those around them, often with consequences that affect generations. Parents that abuse substances, or verbally or physically abuse their children, can lead their children to go on to abuse themselves, their own children, or others. We hear many of these stories today. Indeed, many of the headlines of crime and human tragedy title stories of parental abuse and childhood suffering.

Less frequently do we hear stories of the inverse: tales describing how one incredible, extraordinary human being, one magnanimous soul, produces positive consequences that reverberate across time. Such people have tremendous strength of character and raw determination, and act as their family’s social glue and foundation. Through their lifestyle and cumulative decisions, they influence those around them—and the generations after them—for the better. These magnanimous souls, people of great personal strength and benevolence, live out a beautiful song—a song that produces a mellifluous echo in successive generations. They initiate a virtuous cycle that begins by building into the lives of those they meet, who in turn build into the lives of yet more individuals. My grandmother epitomized this type of life. Hers was a life well-lived.

She and her husband raised their children—four daughters and one son—to love God, to be unceasingly considerate of others, to pursue moral excellence, and to walk through life with a joyful, contagious, and song-filled (at least for the sisters!) ebullience. Each of my grandmother’s children, while unique in their own right, have gone on to be the glue in their families and communities. Each of their two to four children—my cousins and siblings—have internalized these values, originally instilled by my grandmother and diffused by our parents, and have become positive lights in their own spheres of influences. This is the extraordinary legacy my grandmother leaves. It is one that is difficult to quantify, but one that has done untold good for more people than she—or I—will ever know.

Zeal for Hope, and Maximizing Every Human Interaction

For my grandmother, there was no such thing as an ordinary, casual human encounter. No meeting with another person was neutral: every interaction was an opportunity for her to share the absolute hope she held with every molecule of her being. Her central hope was in her faith. She believed undeterredly in the eternal salvation that comes with Jesus Christ for anyone who chooses to repent from sin and accept the free gift of forgiveness through his death and sacrifice on the ross. She never left her home without a gospel tract (in at least three different languages) or a “Roman Road to Salvation” booklet, and, after years of passing conversation and friendship, even saw her mail lady come to faith.

But she also had great hope in products or services that she was confident would make people’s life better. She was a serial entrepreneur: any time a new multi-level-marketing company would come to Canada, my grandmother was among the first people they would recruit to help them sell their wares. It’s difficult to fully recount all the companies she was involved with, but among the ones that I remember from my childhood are Mary Kay cosmetics (my grandmother, my mother, and two sisters at one point each had pink Cadillacs which they parked in their driveway in Oakville, Ontario!), Environu non-toxic household cleaning products, Xoçai health dark chocolate, Amway, Tahitian Noni juice—the list goes on! Even now, remnants of these products and their promotional materials can be found throughout her home—and seeing them never fails to bring a smile to the face of anyone who knew her. 

Yes, Grandma was most herself when she was sharing with others the hope that she had—whether it was in Christ or healthy chocolate! Yet more than anything, I think selling all of these products was just an excuse for her to satiate her passion for people and for relationships. For my grandmother, a stranger was just a friend she had not yet met. She was socially fearless, and had no qualms approaching and striking up a conversation with homeless person downtown Toronto (armed with a Tim Hortons cup of hot chocolate for them and a gospel tract, naturally), or Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker at a cocktail party.

She had a passion for people and for forming relationships and for making other’s lives better. She was always eager to share her hope with anyone who would listen. Sure, sometimes she irked people who were suspicious of her kindness. After all, who starts a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop these days?

There were, of course, those who simply didn’t want to be sold to—including members of her own family! I remember taking my grandmother for coffee around this time last year and being vexed that, the moment we sit down, she beings to introduce herself to the middle-aged man at the table next to us. Within moments, she had drawn a gospel tract from her handbag to begin leading him through it. Grandma, I thought to myself, why can’t we just spend time together? Why must everything be a moment of salesmanship?  

Yet sharing her hope was embedded in her DNA, and though her acts of kindness and friendship were sometimes misplaced, misinterpreted, or rebuffed, far more often were they appreciated, reciprocated, and brought life and light to someone direly in need of it. In a world plagued by darkness, loneliness, and a lack of hope, the intentionality that my grandmother brought to every exchange with other persons, and her fervor for cultivating friendships, undoubtedly made the world a brighter, more connected place. 

It was a privilege to share a few of these ideas at her celebration of life this past weekend, which you may find here. Losing her leaves a gap felt keenly by our family, but my aspiration is to honor her by keeping her legacy alive and mining her rich life, brimming with wisdom and grace, for lessons in community and friendship that can be a model for, and inspiration to, us all. 

Things I’m reading:

Gorgeous prose: An Ode to The Heart

I loved this essay not only because it is beautifully written, but because of its in-depth look into an essential aspect of life—the heart as a physical and metaphorical entity—that we often overlook, neglect, and take for granted.  On the physical aspect of the heart, I loved this line: “Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.” On the metaphorical, this: “So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart.” This last quote reminds me of a line by C.S. Lewis, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

Civil Society Reconsidered, by Gertrude Himmelfarb

There were some beautiful remembrances to Gertrude Himmelfarb—wife of Irving Kristol and mother of Bill Kristol—in the wake of her passing last month. It made me wish I had discovered her work earlier. This is one essay I’ve read of hers that I particularly adored, as it captures some key insights into the nature of human community and flourishing, and the new challenge posed by modern technology: “Today, in our anxiety about the excesses of individualism and statism, we may find ourselves looking upon civil society not merely as a corrective to those excesses but as a be-all and end-all, a sanctuary in itself, a sufficient habitat for the human spirit… This is civil society properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), a civil society rooted in all that is most natural and admirable—family, community, religion—and that is also intimately related to those other natural and admirable aspects of life, country and humanity.”

American community isn’t dead. It’s just changing

This is fascinating series of essays commissioned by the Knight Foundation on the future of community. The series includes an interesting essay by AEI’s Ryan Streeter, who discusses the role of urban planning on fostering community: “When work, play, relationships and leisure ‘hang together’ in a community, people generally fare better by any economic or social measure we value.” The story of America and community are inseparable: “The future of ‘community’ is rekindling the spirit of local organization… In the next decade, technology will allow us to redefine leadership to create  a playbook for community leaders. That technology is increasing every day, providing us with the space we need to unite and be innovative as we work together to address the issues and problems we face,” writes Jahmal Cole, an education reform advocate in Chicago, in his essay about the way in which digital community organization supports hyper-local innovation. I couldn’t agree more!

The importance of reading big and difficult books

“It is a principal task of a successful modern university to teach people how to read such things. Indeed, it might be said that one of the few key competencies we here at the university have to teach—our counterpart or the medieval triad of rhetoric, logic, grammar and then quadriad of arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology—is how to read and absorb a theoretical argument made by a hard, worthwhile, flawed book.” The author of this wonderful piece recommends a ten-stage process for reading such big books: 

1.     Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.

2.     Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.

3.     Read through the book actively, taking notes…Continue reading here!

In the news:
The death and life of the great American newspaper

The death and life of the great American newspaper. In my latest for Quillette, I report on the struggle of Indianapolis’s Indy Star. I explain that the “death of local news” with which we are all familiar is actually a story of death and rebirth. Local journalist-citizens–such as Tim Swarens, who was laid off last year from the Indy Star after two decades there–are not complacent and are instead creating new ways to bring the news to readers everywhere.  Read the full essay here.

Somehow, Larry David teaches us what community means
Larry David, the Miss Manners of the 21st Century, shows us the centrality of peer to peer accountably to supporting a free and ordered society of limited government. “With a more critical watch, his show Curb Your Enthusiasm is good for more than just a laugh. It unmasks something crucial in our society: Our desperate need for accountability. A recurring scene in “Curb” involves LD confronting a person for something selfish—someone cutting in line at a buffet or taking up two parking spaces. He’s become famous for giving voice to what viewers are thinking. Often, bystanders in the show come to LD’s defense, affirming the reprimand of the selfish citizen. There are some superficial similarities between the way that Larry David operates and the soft, overly-sensitive culture that has sprung up these days. You might even call Larry a sort of “social justice warrior,” though one with a very particular definition of both “social” and “justice.” But there are crucial differences at play…” Read more here.

Interview with James Hankins on Renaissance Italy
I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvard intellectual historian James Hankins for Quillette about his new book, Virtue Politics. Listen in to learn about how institutions and leaders shape the souls of citizens, abut how to foment a renaissance in America today, and about the renaissance occurring currently in China, grounded in ancient Confucianism. An enriching and soul-nourishing conversation! Find it here.

In related news, congratulations to Ron Manners, a subscriber from Western Australia and director of Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, for being the fortunate winner of Dr. Hankins book from the contest we ran last month!

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s A New American Renaissance! As always, please send me a note with any feedback you have for things you’d like to see changed or added.

We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. . . . The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality. Perhaps it is a sort of elemental training to those higher and more large regards, by which alone men come to be affected, as with their own concern, in the prosperity of a kingdom. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France