I’m a subscriber to Word a Day and one of the clever things
it does, beyond expanding my vocabulary, is to present a quote every day. Here’s
one that particularly struck me:
We must learn to honor
excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the
activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent
plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The
society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble
activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted
activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes
nor its theories will hold water.
-John W. Gardner, author and leader
In our current favor for immediacy and controversy
over humble excellence, Gardner’s words set me to thinking. Perhaps we
have made price, status and availability too low a bar.
What makes us smile? Why does extra effort so
amaze us? Why is it that a simple act of kindness or courage is
so rare in the buzz of everyday life?
I was looking for a new case for my
cell phone the other day and the very large and amply equipped shop I chose
explained that my phone was too old for them to carry such an item. Okay, I
But he went further and checked out
additional sources, suggesting a competitor who still had several available. Indeed,
I found one there.
Now he didn’t need to do that and even exposed his
shop to the possibility I might use his competitor in future. But I won’t. That
simple act of going the extra mile assures (at least for me) that I’ll try him first
of all the next time. He smiled and wished me well—the cherry on the
Waiting for a tram several nights
ago, I spotted a homeless man and his dog, sitting on the street. A common
sight these days and more common yet to step around him with a scornful look.
But a man, clearly not homeless,
stopped and engaged him in brief conversation. Then he sat down, pet the dog
and chatted for a while. No money changed hands, but the homeless man’s
humanity had been acknowledged. He was lifted, if only for a moment,
from the scum of the street to (perhaps) just another guy a bit down on his
What drove him there? Alcohol? A divorce, lost job or mental
health? I have no idea. His dog still loves him and dogs are very picky. It may
be that our collective annoyance is closely tied to the possibility that, under
certain circumstances, we might be him.
Enough of speculation.
I’m no better than you at
understanding or doing good for the less fortunate. It was not John Gardner’s
purpose, nor is it mine, to pontificate from an ivory tower.
But his words were powerful for me in these difficult times
and I wanted to share them with you.