Mission mottoes and slogans usually become shopsoiled with age as shiny ideals are dulled by rusty practice. Thirty years ago in Catholic boys schools, for example, the catch phrase men for others had wide currency. It expressed the conviction that life was about more than obeying commandments. It involved generosity to others as well as faithfulness to God.
As boys grew into men, however, many used the phrase proudly but appeared to be self-serving and callous in their actions. They identified men with alpha males, identified being for with being over others and making decisions for them, and identified others with groups of people with whose faces they were not familiar. The phrase seemed to feed their self-esteem more than their empathy with people who are vulnerable.
This suggests that the phrase needs to be polished to show its original image. Men are more than successfully competitive males as distinct from females. They are human beings with dreams, desires, tragic losses and failures, resilience, weakness, a high calling and responsibilities. For expresses a relationship built on empathy, friendship and responsibility. Others are people, each with their individual face, different in race, wealth, faith and needs.
This understanding and the practice that follows from it call for the development of a deeper imagination than our culture commends. In Books that Saved my Life Michael McGirr, who teaches in a boys school, explores what this imagination might look like. At its heart lies curiosity about the world, and particularly about what it means to be human. As the title of his book suggests he finds this curiosity fed by wide and attentive reading.
Its humour, broad sympathy, fascination with stories and with the quirkiness of human relationships are the antidote to incurious and dismissive attitudes to the world and other people.
The subtitle of McGirr’s book is Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure. To those rewards should be added Challenge or Conversion. He is far more than an entertainer. He is a moralist in the rich sense of the word. He tries to draw his readers beyond moralising, and to reflect on the depth of what it means to be human.
Moralising involves standing on sure ground above the messiness of human life, relying on unquestioned prejudices to categorise the people and actions that we see, and to criticise or praise accordingly. It comes out of a closed and superficial view of the world that is blind to complexity and depth. Like all good moralists McGirr enjoys nailing self-satisfied superficiality, whether found in students who trim their reading to what might pass an examination or in adults who can see no value in a poorly remunerated life.
In Books that Saved my Life, McGirr commends reading that uncovers the depth in apparently narrow or shallow human experience, the fierce thirst for life harboured by apparently defeated people, the ways in which equable lives can instantly be torn apart by death, depression or war, and the divine spark that can enliven the most unprepossessing clay.
His reading evokes respect and compassion for all people in their humanity, and corresponding outrage at the way in which they are treated as things to be exploited. He encourages boys to become men for others in the ample and bolshie sense of the phrase.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.