Dec 26, 2001

Who’s There?

The novelist Walker Percy stresses how unusual it is to find a truly whole person. He asks whether if you met someone on the sidewalk for the first time, greeted the person cordially, and told him you knew exactly what he must do with his life, would the person do as you advised? More than a few would be tempted, he suspects, since so many in our rootless society are desperate for direction.

This doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence or income. Not too long ago, the Heaven’s Gate cult members—a group of young, bright, affluent people—decided to commit suicide together in order to join up with a mother ship that was said to be trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

Nor does the impulse to take our cues from others belong only to a few kooks. The sociologist René Girard has advanced a theory of societal formation based on imitative behavior. Beyond basic needs and necessities, much of how we behave and almost all of what we want—in terms of material goods—stems from group attitudes.

For example, the other day my wife was running with a new friend. Both had recently moved to our small town and were making friends and trying to ease their families’ transition. My wife’s friend was worried about the repairs being done to her house—when would she be able to start entertaining? She thought her family should take advantage of the new 0% financing being offered and buy a new car, as virtually everyone in both women’s acquaintance seemed to be doing. A new round of birthday parties among her children’s peers were being given, and she was anxious that they be invited to all of them. “They are not going to miss out on a thing,” she said, “not if I can help it.”

My wife had similar concerns, but then she stopped and asked, “Just how hard are we willing to work to be the Queens of Nowhere?”

As for me, my susceptibility to others’ opinions is most acute when it comes to my reputation. I’ve written entire books for the sake of status.

On the other hand, as Walker Percy also points out, occasionally you look into someone’s eyes and see the miracle of a truly whole person.

I attended the funeral of such a man today, Mr. Jimmy Partin. When I was a child, Mr. Partin used to invite me to his house, where, as an avocation, he raised quail, chucker, and the occasional family of pheasant and grouse. One of his greatest joys was to see a child scoop up a baby quail into his hands and feel the tiny, warm body rustling in his palms.

For much of his life, Jimmy Partin worked as a grocer and by all reports gave away about as much food as he sold. Long before his passing, he was known by everyone as one of the finest and sweetest men on God’s earth.

What made Jimmy Partin whole—a grace to everyone he met? Why did he have the strength to take his greatest delight in the joy of children?

Mr. Partin kept a prayer diary by his bedside, and he wrote down the names of the people he prayed for daily. In his very last years, this became much of his reason for living. The people in his life mattered to him, evidently, and God’s provision for them mattered even more.

Mr. Partin, like the rest of us, looked to find his identity in relationship and community. The impulse to find ourselves in relationship—however much it can be misdirected and lead us astray—is not something to be rejected finally. This impulse does need to be saved, however, from mere opinion. We need to know the truth about ourselves, and that can only be found in God. And the good news is that God loves us. The more God’s love becomes real for us, the more we are free to love the world and its children and to be that love—as Jimmy Partin so often was—to others.

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