Snopes says it wasn’t written by Schultz, but The Philosophy of Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts feels like it should have been. The fundamental question is who we remember over time, who makes a difference in our lives.
The point is obvious – people who are kind to us, who go out of their way to help us, whom we enjoy, are the people who have made a difference to us. It is not the celebrities or the famous whom we remember. If I’d read this as an adolescent, I would have thought I understood and lived by those values. After all, I was going to be a missionary nun and spend my life serving the poor. I was going to make the world a seriously better place. I didn’t think I was worried about celebrity or wealth or fame.
But with a little rueful self-knowledge that comes with years, I know I didn’t really understand. In fact, I think if I’d been growing up in the world today, I might very well have thought that the number of friends I had on Facebook was an indicator of just how successful and important I was. But I was socialized as a serious Catholic. So my version of celebrity was sainthood. It certainly wasn’t anonymity! I was going to be right up there with St. Theresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena, telling popes how to run the world.
In fairness to my parents, I wasn’t named after Therese of Avila but after Therese the Little Flower who was supposed to illustrate that holiness resided in little things. I thought that meant things like picking pieces of paper up off the floor, or drying the dishes so they were really dry all over. I didn’t understand it meant kindness or doing obvious mundane things like cooking for the family every day or doing the laundry, or working hard with one’s students or patients or clients. I thought to be a really great saint one had to be noticed.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was an exceptionally self-centered adolescent focusing only on my own future and fame. I think I was inescapably young. It is part of the human condition.
The great feature about our human species is our incredible capacity to learn. But the other half of this great potential is that we are not born with the variety of instinctive behaviors that include all the essentials we need to survive. We need to learn from experience, from being taught, from watching others. If we don’t have them, it’s a lot harder to learn to love, to work, to think. I’ve had some wonderful people in my life to learn from.
And so if I no longer have the slightest regret about not being a celebrity in any sense of the word, I have a lot of people to thank. Becoming a saint was my adolescent mid-west Catholic version of being famous. No doubt as an adolescent today my version would look rather different. But at the heart of it, it would be the same.
Because I think we have to learn that recognition and adulation isn’t really the mark of ultimate success. In that context, one of the compliments I once received that I treasure almost above all others was the statement from an old friend who said “You were always so kind.” Fifty years ago I suspect I would have disregarded a description of myself as “kind” as wimpish and pretty common. I was aiming for something much greater than mere kindness. Now my greatest regret is those times when I failed to be kind.