‘When you get where you’re going, don’t forget to turn back around. Help the next one in line. Always stay humble and kind.”
I had the words of that Tim McGraw song in my head as Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the Senate were beginning to wind down. Some of the girls he has coached over the years in basketball were sitting in on a crash course, at times, on how broken our civil discourse is, which included regular disruption from screaming protesters. When the girls arrived, after a lunch break, Kavanaugh literally did have to turn back around to see them and introduced them, with great affection, name and grade, to the committee.
Humble and kind is just about the opposite of our mood in politics and culture today. And yet there it was, creeping in. There were other moments, like when he talked about his volunteer work feeding the homeless with Catholic Charities and tutoring. “We are all God’s children. We are all equal,” he said. “People have gotten there because maybe they have a mental illness; maybe they had a terrible family situation; maybe they lost a job and had no family. But every person you serve a meal to is just as good as me or better.”
“You can’t change everything at once, but just being able to change one meal, one day . . . or [have] one kid who remembers one thing in a tutoring session . . . you can make a big difference in people’s lives,” he said.
That tone was very different from much of the noise swirling around the nomination, much of it bitter. Critics were adamant about radical abortion politics, irate about Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings or a vote for Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court pick in the final year of his administration, or anguished over the fact that Donald Trump is president. Kavanaugh’s tone was different from much of what politics is known for, what it attacks and feeds. His approach shows a way out of what ails us. It has everything to do with virtue.
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, writes about this in her new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. Her thesis is that “reading well is in itself an act of virtue, and it is also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return.” She explains that “the attentiveness necessary for deep reading requires patience, the skill of interpretation requires prudence, and the decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.”
Prudence. Temperance. Justice. Courage. Faith. Hope. Love. Chastity. Diligence. Patience. Kindness. Humility. The virtues could go a long way toward making our politics saner, more just and merciful, so that we do not forget the human being who will affected by laws and rulings. She writes in a particularly striking way about that last virtue in the list, which must be the first. “Without humility, without an understanding of our proper place within the order of creation, we cannot cultivate the other virtues.” A Christian who teaches at an Evangelical school, she adds: “We cannot even come to Christ, or to true knowledge, apart from humility.”
“Humility,” she writes, “is not . . . simply a low regard for oneself, rather, it is a proper view of oneself that is low in comparison to God and in recognition of our own fallenness. Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.”
In his testimony, Kavanaugh cited Matthew 25:
For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.
Likewise, Prior writes:
The Beatitudes describe the characteristics of the humble: the poor in spirit, the week, the mournful the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. But the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t merely praise these qualities; it offers a paradoxical promise in which all of those who are last shall be first.
Prior uses Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin from the short story “Revelation” as one of her examples for learning the importance of humility through reading well. Mrs. T. is a prideful woman who “looks down at everyone.” She recalls O’Connor once being asked why she wrote. Her answer: “Because I’m good at it.”
This, too, wasn’t a far cry from the Senate hearing room. Again and again, Kavanaugh took a healthy pride in the judicial decisions he has written.
About O’Connor — but perhaps it could be applied to what we truly want to know before approving a lifetime appointment to the Court — Prior writes:
At first glance, this reply might seem conceited of proud. But the truth is that knowing what we are good at and what we are not, doing what we were supported to do and not what we aren’t, being what we are supposed to be and not what we aren’t, is the essence of true humility.
Humility and kindness (Prior describes “everyday kindness” as “the greatest sort of heroism”): They may not drive headlines, but they could just set us on the right course.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.