Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Honoring Excellence



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 (1912-2002)

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 understand that.

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 sundae.

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 luck.

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.

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