Less Attitude. More Beatitude.

Dear Will:

I was in elementary school—couldn’t possibly tell you what grade. But let’s say I was eight or nine—just old enough to know better, but probably too young to realize it. You know that age when boys are just starting to notice girls but they have no idea—NONE—how to interact with them? That hair-pulling, pencil-swiping, name-calling phase when their basic instincts are not just wrong but WAY wrong? That age.

It was a school night, and my mother was not happy. Not angry, really, but sooo disappointed. (That part you don’t forget.) She had just gotten off the phone with the mother of one of my classmates, a quiet, blond girl whose name I can’t recall. Earlier that day, on the walk home from school, in a simian display of prepubescent manliness no doubt meant to impress some other kid, I had done something vile, said something cruel, acted belligerently toward the little blond girl. Later, through many tears, she had reported the incident to her mom.

Confronted by my own shocked, disenchanted mother, of course I got defensive. “It was a JOKE,” I bellowed. “She’s just being a baby.” This lame attempt to deflect responsibility for my own crude behavior only added to my mother’s deepening sense of disappointment. She shook her head in disbelief. “Peter,” she said, “you were raised better than this. We don’t treat people like that. Not ever. You know better.” Her words pierced me, and the shame was overwhelming. But shame was not my mother’s ultimate purpose. She had a boy to raise and a lesson to teach, with high expectations she surely had learned from her own mother years before. And so in spite of my strident objections, we then drove to the blond girl’s house, and my mother stood, arms folded, as I scuffled my way through a mumbled, mortifying, lesson-teaching apology.

I hope that girl has long forgotten that after-school encounter, but it has now been more than 50 years and I cannot forget. Thank God for a mother who refused to let her son become a bully, a rude, confrontational, self-absorbed reprobate more inclined to cruelty than compassion. But more than that: Thank God for a mother who taught me to try to be more like Jesus—more inclined to kindness, unselfishness, good cheer, and virtue. Less attitude and more beatitude. The gospel she taught in our home is about radiating pure love and goodness, and while we lived it imperfectly, she always wanted it to be clear what we were striving for. In simple terms: She envisioned a son with whom any girl could feel safe while walking home.

Perhaps you, yourself, have been there: You’ve felt the shame or delivered the disappointed correction. Or both. Perhaps you remember what it was like to be that other kid, afraid of what might await you on the journey home from school, the kid sitting at the tiny desk in the tiny chair just wanting to be liked or simply left alone. And perhaps years later you’ve sat at that same desk in the same awkward chair, hoping (praying) that in the parent-teacher conference the teacher says, “He is so nice to the other children” or “She is such a delight to have in class.”

Most of us, I think, want those selfsame things for our children. Kindness, generosity, honesty, fair play—these are simple virtues we expect of our kids from the earliest age. And yet if you pay attention to grown-ups these days, it’s hard to miss the belligerence and aggression that dominates social media and the public square, with name-calling and bullying modeled by some of our most prominent citizens. How did this become OK? I can’t possibly be the only one called out by a mom for such conduct. Doesn’t it seem wrong that we now tolerate in adults behavior we would never put up with in a nine-year-old?

Well, we shouldn’t. We mustn’t. For our kids’ sake. As my mom would say: We were raised better than that. Weren’t we?

PW

Dirt Rich

Dear Will:

You could have called them a bunch of dirt farmers and you wouldn’t have been far from wrong. At the end of the 19th century, dirt was about all you would have found in that part of the Big Horn Basin. That, and maybe enough sagebrush to support a couple of scrawny cattle. Maybe that, but not much more. However, if you were a child, newly arrived from Morgan, Utah, peeking out of a tent at that patch of nearly-nothing, perhaps what you would have seen was an endless horizon, full of promise, stretching west to a tomorrow so brimming with life that only a child could have believed it possible.

My grandfather, Lloyd Taggart, was that kid. Only nine at the time, he was sent with his parents and siblings and maybe 200 others to establish a so-called “Mormon colony” in northern Wyoming. In that mix was an eight-year-old charmer named Louise Welch. Over time, love grew where perhaps crops could not, and by 1916 the two were married, united in their commitment to build a life together in the Big Horn. Raised by family-first pioneers, Lloyd and Louise before long had a brood of their own, with nine kids crammed (somehow) into a two-bedroom home in Cowley, a town built on such prime real estate that to this day its population has never topped 1,000—even if you include those scrawny cows.

I don’t mean to pick on Cowley. My mother was born in that two-bedroom sardine can, and her eyes would twinkle when she remembered the place. The point is that Lloyd and Louise didn’t exactly get a running start in this three-legged race of theirs. But when they settled, at last, in nearby Cody, the two of them established a presence there that from my distant perspective seems incomprehensibly larger than life. Lloyd built a hugely successful construction company that laid down roads throughout the state, including, most notably, in and around Yellowstone Park. Louise, meanwhile, was an originating member of Cody Play Readers and of the Cody Music Club which, I’m stupefied to report, is still around today. And somehow in the midst of all that they acquired and ran the Two Dot, a 170,000-acre cattle ranch north of Cody on Pat O’Hara Creek (you know the place). All that—and so much more that you wouldn’t even believe a fraction of it—while raising those nine precocious kids.

How does that happen? How do two pioneer kids go from next-to-nothing to something-almost-unimaginable? You can bet that grit and industry were big contributors, but I have a hunch that more than a little of their ultimate prosperity and happiness sprang from their loving partnership, built upon a sure foundation of faith in God. You see what needs to be done and get busy doing it, day after day until your legs ache and your back buckles and all you have left at sundown is the strength to fall to your knees and thank your Maker for being part of it all. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” said Jesus, “and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). That’s not a surefire guarantee of success, but I believe it is a promise that when you put first things first, you somehow find a way. Paul said as much: “All things work together for the good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).

Thus when your church asks you to start over on a dusty, waterless plain, you do it. And when that same church asks you to preside over a fledgling flock of believers—for over 29 uninterrupted years—even though you’re trying to build a construction company and run a cattle ranch and help build a hospital and a bank and serve on the boards of a variety of local businesses . . . (hang on . . . gotta catch my breath) . . . well, you do it is what you do. And all the while, you follow that ancient credo: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). And thus—somehow—it works out.

I suppose that what I’m saying is that, if you should ever feel like your life has been dumped and scattered, leaving you to more or less start over without much more than a canvas tent to your good name, perhaps you should invite God to look over your shoulder as you to peek out of the tent-flap at the horizon ahead. There’s no telling what you might see. Nor what you might accomplish together.

PW

P.S. My grandmother, Louise Welch. is the taller girl on the right, standing between her father and the horse. I told you she was a charmer.

I’m Sick of This. Fortunately.

Dear Will:

I am so sick of this.

We are entering Week Whatever of quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’ve had enough. Every day looks like the one before it: Get up. Walk the dog. Stare at a computer screen for nine or ten hours. Scrounge up some dinner. Watch something. Read something. Go to bed. Some nights we order take-out. Woo hoo.

What I wouldn’t give for a hot meal prepared by a real chef, eaten on an actual plate in a corner booth, maybe with some live music thrown in. I want to go to the theater, like we used to. Maybe catch a movie. Go to a game. It’s gotten so bad that the highlight of the week has become the weekly trip to the grocery store. It’s just about the only reason I have to get in my car. But to do that I have to strap on a mask and snap on some rubber gloves. I look like a scrawnier and somewhat less malevolent version of that bad guy in The Dark Knight Rises.

I play along, but never with enthusiasm. Only learning more about this strain of the coronavirus has kept me from defying local restrictions in protest. Even though I have multiple relatives who are medical professionals, I’m not dumb enough to think that their training somehow suggests that I have a natural instinct for these things, so I’ve turned to those with unique expertise to help me understand how this virus spreads or how best to mitigate its impact on society. In the early days of this crisis, this simulation helped me grasp the unambiguous power of social distancing. And this post from Dr. Erin Bromage, an immunologist from UMass Dartmouth, gave me much better insight into how COVID-19 spreads from person to person.

In my eagerness to get back to the life I prefer, I found one of Dr. Bromage’s examples particularly sobering. He describes an actual case in which an asymptomatic person (someone not too different from me, I suppose) had dinner with nine friends at a restaurant. Unfortunately, that person was an unwitting carrier of the coronavirus. Within a week, roughly half of the people at the infected person’s table had become sick, along with five others at adjacent tables. As I read that, I thought: “Wow. I wouldn’t want to be that guy.”

I am thrilled by recent announcements that some of the restrictions where I live are beginning to loosen. Even so, I can see why gathering with a couple of hundred friends at church for hugs and hymns might still be one of the worst ideas around. But gathering with a dozen or so in someone’s backyard might be just the thing I need right now to satisfy my growing desire for fellowship and collective worship. By all means, let’s take some baby steps. But let’s make sure they’re in the right direction.

Something my brother-in-law shared with me a few weeks ago continues to reverberate in my quarantined brain. That he’s a doctor merely adds gravitas to an already persuasive idea. “Don’t change your behavior to avoid getting sick,” he told me. “Assume that you’re already sick, and change your behavior to avoid infecting others.” When I start to feel like I’ve had about as much mask-wearing as I can take, his words compel me to put one on anyway.

This idea—that “I’m not doing this for myself; I’m doing it for others”—is at the heart of the aggressive precautions advocated by epidemiologists. It’s not a question of “rights” but of what’s right. As a Christian, I have always believed that at the heart of Jesus’s teachings is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you; or in scriptural language, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is a universal ideal, as Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu and Islamic as it is Christian. It is an expression of our best selves, woven into the very fabric of civil society. Do I like working from home? Not really. Do I enjoy wearing rubber gloves at Albertsons? No way. But am I willing to do it? For you? Absolutely. And I’m inexpressibly grateful to all of those taking similar precautions to keep me and my family from coming down with COVID-19.

I guess what I’m saying is that, sure, I’m sick of this. But even more, I’m grateful not to be sick of that.

PW