July 14, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

What the world needs are a few good men

Is it the U.S. Marines who claim that all they need are “a few good men”? Well, whoever it was who suggested this certainly had the right idea because the world sure could use more good men.

Which brings me to my Uncle Ole, of whom I’ve written before. He died recently at age 92, leaving seven children and their spouses, 20 grandchildren, three greats and innumerable nieces, nephews, in-laws and friends. Here indeed was one of those few good men.

For a person of such a great age, my uncle had a large funeral, with many people in attendance. And, unlike some of these occasions, it was a happy event despite a few inevitable tears. Laughter ruled as everyone related his or her Uncle Ole story. He wasn’t a comical man, but his cheerful good sense made him memorable.

Ole was one of the few people I’ve ever known who could criticize another without being mean. For example, of a politician’s crass behavior, he would say only, “He sure likes to get elected, doesn’t he?” and grin, amused at such folly. He would suffer a fool, but never an unkind or dishonest one.

Many of the 42 nephews and nieces on his wife’s side (of whom I am one)—plus the even larger numbers of nephews and nieces on his side of the family—enjoyed a week or so every summer visiting him and Aunt Margaret on their Wisconsin farm.

One nephew now living in South Africa sent an e-mail message in which he told of learning valuable life lessons at the farm. Once, the dog bit him when he tried to take its bone away. Uncle Ole didn’t warn him away from the dog or sympathize much. He just said, “Well, now you know, never try to take a bone away from a dog.” And by golly, said this nephew, he now has several dogs himself and never once has he tried to take their bones away.

Religion was important to Uncle Ole in a quietly personal way. He didn’t preach or judge; he just believed that God was always in charge and the rest of us were assigned to doing whatever we could and should here on earth. He passed this confidence on to his children, and indeed to all of us now scattered around the world. He convinced purely by example.

The reason I say all this is because I was astounded to realize the impact one life could make. One humble, unassuming man influenced literally hundreds of people for the good. Exponentially, this influence no doubt extended even further through them.

It made me think how the reverse is also true. We expect powerful and important people like presidents and popes and kings to be influential and, when they fail to influence according to God’s will, we all suffer the consequences. Hitler, Stalin and the bad popes are illustrations of this truth.

And, just as one ordinary good man can change the world for the better, so can one bad or indifferent person ruin it for many others. One selfish, uncaring jerk can ruin a family, a business, a neighborhood or even contribute to the destruction of a healthy society.

The Indian chief in the movie Little Big Man said the man who “knows where the center of the earth is” is the man who deserves praise.

Uncle Ole knew where the center of the earth is, all right. Thanks to him, some of us do, too.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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