The Better Letter: King of the Virtues

On humility and gratitude.

The early reviews of 2020 are in and they are…

…not great.

The “Standard Texas” (read “lone star”) is the norm, yet it’s healthy to remember that things could always be worse.

If you live in a free country and have a family you love, you’re already doing reasonably well. If you have a decent job and a place to live, too, you have much for which to be thankful.

None of that is to deny there aren’t abundant problems, difficulties, and failures. As Jackson Browne sang, “Don’t confront me with my failures | I had not forgotten them.”

We keep getting “one more last chance” to get things right…or, at least, righter.

We should thank God and be grateful for those we love…

…and those who guide and mentor us.

Gratitude for what we have should overflow into helping and serving others.

Many have it a lot tougher than most of us do.

Even if you are not American and didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving yesterday, I suspect the vast majority of readers have much for which to be thankful. May it be so.

I apologize for the slightly tardy arrival of this week’s TBL. My laptop crashed last evening.

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King of the Virtues

A dropped cigar wrapper changed the course of American history.

Special Order 191 was a general movement order issued by Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee on September 9, 1862, during the Maryland Campaign of the Civil War. A lost copy of this order was recovered on September 13 – wrapped around three cigars – by Union Army troops from the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry in Frederick County, Maryland. The authenticated order indicated that Lee had split his army and dispersed portions geographically (to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland), making each subject to isolation and defeat if Union commander, Major General George B. McClellan, could move quickly.

McClelland could, but he didn’t. As ever, he had “the slows,” and lost his command over it. With the aid of the intelligence found in Lee’s order, McClellan halted Lee's invasion of Maryland. However, the Union Army suffered heavier losses and Lee was able to withdraw his army back to Virginia without challenge. September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history.

Had it been a movie, the found cigar wrapping would have led to conclusive victory. Life tends to be much messier than the best narratives.

Even so, although the battle was tactically inconclusive, Confederate troops withdrew from the battlefield first and abandoned their northern invasion, making it appear a Union strategic success. It provided enough of a victory to prevent the probable Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1862 northern elections, to arrest a disastrous decline in northern morale, and to give Lincoln political cover to announce his Emancipation Proclamation and, in doing so, discourage the British and French governments, which were strongly opposed to slavery, from recognizing the Confederacy.

If history teaches anything, it is that our ability to make sense of it is dramatically limited. So much of it is predicated upon the random, the contingent, and cigar wrappings. Even the people who think they are making history control far less than they assume. Unintended consequences rule the days.

That’s why humility is king of the virtues and why all of us who are here, and especially those of us who have lucked into (or been graciously granted) a few good outcomes, had much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. As G.K. Chesterton said, “thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

If we turn the light of humility inward, we’ll see how much of our success — such as it is — is due to others and luck. None of us was born in North Korea.

Grace abounds.

Physicist Brian Greene’s grand unified theory of human endeavor “is that we want to transcend death by attaching ourselves to something permanent that will outlast us. Yet, in the physical world, entropy will carry the day, tearing down all that evolution has built. The Milky Way will eventually be sucked into a black hole. Everything seems predestined to fall apart.

Vladimir Nabokov described human life as a “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Greene applies that metaphor much, much more widely and would still have us be grateful for the brief crack.

I am. But I also wonder at the hint of so much more. As Nabokov also said, “through the thin sheath of a ripe chrysalis one can see, in its small wing cases, the dawning of color and pattern, a miniature revelation of the butterfly that will soon emerge and let its flushed and diced wings expand to many times their pupal size.” Indeed, “this world is not as bad as it seems.”

All of nature groans for a day everything will be made right, when it “will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” History’s rhymes suggest the very same thing. We are meaning-makers and meaning-seekers at every level. Adding God to the search is both optional and redundant.

Totally Worth It

Last week I argued that “up is the way forward,” – that the best way forward in a deeply polarized society is to love those with whom we disagree mightily. Here is how it’s done. 

“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline,” Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in his 1956 sermon, “using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” Marilynne Robinson writes in Gilead that, “Love is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”

The most remarkable thing I saw this week. The most inspirational. The most powerful. The most impressive. The stupidest.

Note Charles Dickens’ warning: “I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us. But, it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true. Never try it for that. It will break down like a straw.”

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Thomas Jefferson allowed. He proved it with his friendship with John Adams.

MSNBC falsely reported the death of Bob Dylan this week. Thank God. As Cat Power said, “Hearing Bob speak about his thankfulness for all the protection you feel from community and camaraderie [in the song below] is inspirational.” 


This week’s Benediction features the Barclay Brass, made up mostly of military brass players, including my terrific son-in-law. Here they are playing an arrangement of the Bach classic, “Now Thank We All Our God.” 

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 40 (November 27, 2020)