By Robert R. Schwarz
When I am weak, then I am strong
( The Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians, 12:10 )
God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong
( 1 Corinthians , 1: 27 )
If we should ever feel burdened by the knowledge
of our weakness…let us remember what the Lord
told St. Paul during his time of trial : "My graces
is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect
in weakness ."
( from Conversations with God by Francis Fernandez )
Many years ago I was saddened and also dismayed by the death of two friends whom I had considered paragons of human strength—emotional, physical, intellectual. As a journalist, their deaths left me with a need to know why our society appears confused about the core of human strength . Should we call a man or woman " weak" when , upon closer discernment , we see how strong he or she is when put to the test ; or label someone "strong" when he has over a lifetime behaved with subtle weakness ?
I began to probe these questions by recalling those hundreds of men and women who, despite the brutal clubbing and lunges of police dog, stayed the course of their freedom march in Selma , Alabama ; and of those peaceful marches in 1930 in India when thousands were savagely beaten by soldiers determined to eliminate a country-wide protest against a British imposed, harsh tax on simple salt. And then I read the Wall Street Journal article that appeared after Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs . In describing the SEAL's training as the hardest training in the world , where only 10 to 20 percent of trainees graduate, Lt. Cmdr. Eric Greitens , himself a SEAL in the U.S. Navy Reserve, wrote: " Almost all the men who survived [ his own training class ] possessed one common quality. Even in great pain, faced with the test of their lives, they had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more that a 'fist' of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose."
|Blessed Mother Teresa|
How we view indomitable human strength and pitiful, often concealed weakness became clearer when I began to think of the lives of six friends : a corporate vice president, psychiatrist, homeless man, ex-felon, fast-food clean-up man , and department store clerk. I have chosen one of them to write about in some depth . Hopefully, I'll someday find it appropriate to tell you about the others . First, a brief account of two "strong" men… I have changed some names and locations.
Dillon was a college varsity wrestler and cross-country runner who later wore captain bars as a U.S. Infantry paratrooper during the Korean Conflict. He married a smart, classy woman who lovingly bore him three children and saw that they were raised on a good ole fashioned regimen of American morality, work ethics , and patriotism. Dillon became vice president for an international consulting company, managing several hundred employees.
According to Dillon , drinking with the boys was part of the job,. "You find out what the competition is doing at the hotel bar," he once told me. He could come home at 3 a.m. , fall asleep on the living room floor watching television, then rise at 6:30 a.m. with full steam for work. "Dillon has amazing recuperative powers," his wife would say. But after twenty-five years of riding the corporate high, Dillon 's "powers" were not recharging so quickly. There had been a lot of nights with the boys at hotel bars. " I can stop drinking anytime I want , " he explained in a huff to his wife after walking out of his first—and last— AA meeting .
One afternoon , Dillon , his wife and I were sitting in my home making arrangements for a mutual friend's funeral. I knew of the reoccurring troubles Dillon 's drinking had brought to his work and family life . I turned to him and , as if asking an academic question, said: "Dillon , would you sacrifice anything for the love of you wife?" He thought for a moment before realizing he was being confronted with something off limits, in a mine field . "Oh," he said, trying to dismiss my question as unworthy of much thought, "you mean the drinking ." e said He He said no more, and , unfortunately, neither did his wife nor I . But the unspoken point had been made: Though you love your wife dearly, Dillon , do you have the courage, the guts to do something extremely vital to your family's happiness?
A couple of years later, Dillon , now separated from his wife and drinking a tumbler of vodka before noon, sat down one day to assess his situation. Unbelievably, the mind that once provided leadership for cadres of managers and also handled the self-sacrificing logistics of raising two daughters and a son, concluded: Things could be better but, really, Dillon, it's not all that bad. Right?
He tried to rise from his chair but couldn't. The legs which at college could race three miles in less than 15 minutes and which could seize the ground after a chute drop from ten thousand feet up, had suddenly become paralyzed. Dillon— and I know God loved him-- died a few weeks later.
My other friend was a psychiatrist whom I met in an interview for a series I was writing about a mental health center. Dr. Rudy Sunburg was 42 , a tall , balding , cigar-smoking , humor-witted , North Carolina boy with an I-like-people personality . Rudy's hearty laugh compensated for the barely tolerable puns he told to staff and patients alike. Everyone wanted to claim friendship with Rudy. He was a fun-loving father to a Mexican boy whom he and his wife had adopted soon after Rudy had left a successful general practice for psychiatry. We and our wives bonded during the years Rudy and I served on the board of a county mental health association .
My wife and I often visited Rudy in his home and soon learned he was an atheist who actually carried this ID in his wallet . This fact never seemed to bother his colleagues or patients, that is until Rudy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Pain now forced him to sleep in a hardback chair at night, facing the back of the chair and resting his head on folded arms. A few days before Rudy was hospitalized, I looked for an opening to say what I knew must be said to a good friend. I waded in with: "Rudy, what if you're wrong about God and everything. At least cover your bases and—". I didn't know what to say next. In those days I did not articulate my Christian faith very well. But Rudy gave me full attention with a polite smile that said he had heard it all before, most of it from his devout , Southern Baptist mother .
|Martin Luther King , Jr.|
The next week I visited Rudy at a Chicago hospital . Still the atheist, Rudy joked about the morphine which had constipated him so severely that it required a nurse—a friend of his— to give him relief by hand. A Jewish lady chaplain entered, and we all talked and made witty remarks . Though Rudy was expected to fight off his foe for several more weeks, he died— suddenly the next day.
Later, I couldn't help but ask myself: Had my friend died with at least one thought of God and His omnipresence, His omniscience, His omnipotence ? Had my friend , before his final darkness, had any thought of a heaven , that maybe, just maybe his atheism had let him down? Or did my friend, with his disciplined empirical certitude, believe he was facing the absolute end of himself —forever? If so and if he saw his last days as nothing but unceasing pain or his spinning in a mind-numbing cloud of morphine, then I dreaded to ask: had this wonderful psychiatrist yesterday written for himself one last prescription and then handed it to his nurse friend.
Then Came Philip: a Rare Breed
Philip's speaking voice belied his appearance, and you might assume it belonged to a radio announcer or a corporate CEO, for it had a mellow timbre that resonated self-control and perfect diction. Though you had never seen his face ( which was not especially memorable ), you'd be willing to risk an opinion that his man was kind and trustworthy. That his face hardly ever showed any trace of any interior conflict could most likely be attributed to the stiff-upper-lip attitude of his parents of German descent.
The few who regularly interacted with Philip saw him as a private , gentle , and meek-spirited man who rarely asserted himself , and when he had to, it was with utter calm and absence of any guile. I found it interesting that my friend would rather face the occasional hoard of grasping customers at the department store which employed him than the give-and-take of any human relationship. Other than an occasional wish to be a few inches taller than his five-feet-five inches, his ambitions were to be an honest and diligent salesperson in his furniture section and to retain a sane and secure lifestyle that allowed him frugality and simplicity.
Philip was a college graduate and had majored in business administration. Except for the 20 years of the live-in mutual companionship he had given without stint to his widowed mother, Philip had lived alone as a bachelor in a studio apartment in Arlington Heights, Illinois. According to his sister ( whom I knew before her death ), Philip never dated except for a girl he took to his high school prom. As best I know, Philip had no psychological hang-ups , nor did he ever appear to have any passions, disordered or otherwise ; this, however, would belie his enormous empathy for other people's suffering. Once, while relating to me an incident at his neighborhood supermarket when a runaway car struck and killed a teenage girl, Philip's eyes were wet with tears. Though he had a low discomfort threshold for crowds, he enjoyed nothing more than using his innate and low-key salesmanship skills to please a customer . I always had the notion that the counter which separated Philip from his customers served as a sort of shield that emboldened him to come closer to people in a spirit of friendship , something his very nature could not consummate outside the store.
I believe that Philip , whom I had known off and on since boyhood days, was a moral man in all respects. Yet , except for the one time my wife and I took Philip to a church Christmas pageant , I never knew Philip to attend a church service. He could not emotionally tolerate all the human intimacy of any church service . " I just can't pray with other people , " he confided to me with regret . Yet he always took his turn at prayer at our weekly coffee 'n' donut meetings .
When Philip was a teenager, his father died of a rare blood ailment while the family was
This incident and that of witnessing a lightning bolt kill three soldiers
marching closely behind him during his Army basic training caused him
for all time to be exceptionally prudent about anything or anyone that
could possibly diminish his health or his modest bank account .
A Typical Day .
I well knew my friend's typical day , which never lost it structure for decades. Philip was up at 5 a.m. and put on one of two suits, a white shirt , and one of his four neckties ( each was a past Christmas present from a niece and or his sister in Minnesota ). His breakfast is a muffin—usually blueberry—and a cup of decaffeinated instant coffee. Philip had an aversion to cooking his own meals—something to do with a memory of army chow and its punishing KP duty. He takes many of his dinners at a McDonald's . A physician would tell him years later that his meal regimen likely had contributed to his two heart attacks .
Before leaving for work, he gives a worried thought to the fragile health of his octogenarian sister or the expected cost of a brake job for his 14-year-old Chevy or , and most troublesome , the kind of person a new boss might be . It perturbed Philip, he had told me when he was 76 , not to know if he'd be up to the challenge of again having to adjust to a possible quirk in a new boss' management style .
Philip now descends two flights of stairs. He drives his car out of a small parking lot across the street and, in ten minutes, arrives at his department store. Because his car once didn't start and he had to take a taxi to work, he always arrives at the shopping center 90 minutes early and sits in the car until the employee entrance opens.
It is a large and busy store, part of a national chain. Top management has been continually cutting back hours for full-time employees or firing them upon the slightest infraction of company rules and then replacing these people with part-time employees who , of course , work without medical benefits and whose hours are changed mercurially from week to week to conform to cash flow demands. Loyal, hardworking veteran employees like Philip are shown no favoritism, Philip explained after I had prodded him to divulge few company "secrets."
Ever since he had opted for a small pay-out instead of a regular company pension , Philip's salary had become barely adequate for rent and food. Unbelievably, he and some other employees, hadn't had a raise in more than 12 years. "If we complain "—Philip never would—"they find some reason to let us go," he told me. He talks about moving to a low- rent apartment in another suburb but procrastinates because of his short drive to work and because he has , for various reasons known only to himself, staked his life's territory in Arlington Heights.
|Sgt. Alvin York|
daily quota of company credit card applications. Philip was downgraded.
" I just couldn't pressure people to sign up for a credit card when I sensed
they really didn't want it," Philip told me. The downgrade stung Philip,
but he did not protest and continued to give his best.
The change in his job description now had him unwrapping and carting sofas and armchairs and stocking shelves . All this physical work was obviously meant to force Philip to quit . It was taking its toll on Philip, now walking slower .
Philip after work heads for dinner , sometimes to his favorite shopping center café for a dinner of pasta ( his favorite ) or one of those hot pork sandwiches on white bread smothered with canned gravy and a side of instant mashed potatoes . Then it's home to his apartment—which no one has ever seen, except his sister when she helped him move in and showed him how the hideaway bed worked . For several months he has entered by the building's backdoor to avoid encountering a tenant who, for no apparent reason, hurls demented insults at him whenever their paths cross: "Come on, Shorty, look alive !" she says.
Once home, Philip does not leave his apartment until morning. Before going to bed, he'll watch a Public Television documentary or a library-borrowed movie from the 1940's . On any of his two days' off, Phillip might spend a few hours reading the Wall Street Journal at the library or taking the train (once a month ) to the Loop to have a corn beef-on-rye sandwich at a German restaurant, one of the very few luxuries he allows himself. Twice, maybe three times a year he'll have lunch with an aging tailor friend. Philip's wardrobe for these off days consists of no more than two plaid shirts (washed but never ironed ) and one pair of aged, slightly baggy pants with cuffs rolled up about three inches.
More Coffee, Nostalgia, and Shoplifters
When Philip's sister died, he made a two-day trip to Minnesota for the services. I telephoned him the day of his return: "Let's meet at Caribou for coffee ," I offered. It was his favorite place; with its fireplace and knotty pine walls , it reminded him of a Northern Minnesota resort where Philip and family would often vacation and fish . Central in his memory was that of the convivial , nature-sage resort owner of Chippewa descent.
As usual, Philip insisted I choose where to sit. I reminded him that it was his turn to pray. His prayer was brief , sincerely expressing gratitude for life itself and asking blessings for my wife. He ended it with "we pray in His name. " I wondered why he had made no reference to his sister, whose death I knew had deeply wounded him . ( "I wasn't even warned , !" he had told me tearfully on the telephone upon returning from Minnesota. )
Our conversation eventually turned to old Hollywood movies and actors like his favorite, Gary Grant .We talked about how the prices of new cars had soared since the 50's, and finally about the very rich and famous and how they unwisely or wisely spend their money—and how they died. This last topic prompted Philip to relate the time he found $l4 ,000 at work. It was in a pouch on the floor, dropped accidentally by a cashier rushing to the security office. "It was anyone's who wanted it, " Philip said, still irritated at the cashier's clumsiness. "No one was in sight at the time and the cashier would never recall where she had dropped it. When I turned it in to security, they grabbed the pouch from me and gave me a queer look . I think they might have said 'thank you. ' "
Philip always has a complaint about the boldness of shoplifters .This time it was a thin woman who, before she was caught, had walked out of a dressing room wearing two layers of stolen dresses concealed under her own dress . And there were "customers" who switched their own shoes with those in a shoe box. Philip , who once sold shoes in the store, found this disgusting. When the topic of charity came up, it was a rare time I saw Philip get visibly angry. "I don't understand it," he said , laying aside a large chocolate cookie. "When we give change back to a customer and suggest they consider dropping just a LITTLE of it into this box here to help our veterans, they make the lamest excuses. " Philip rattled off the excuses.
He leaned back and relaxed. For awhile , we drank our coffee in silence. I became impatient, and so I probed , perhaps unkindly. "Doesn't anything ever upset you , Philip? I mean, do you ever think about heaven or hell ?"
He sensed the edge to my voice . With a confessional tone and angry with me for invading his privacy , he shot back with: "Look, I don't know much about where I'm going when I die. I'm just concerned about all the tragedy that's now in the world. " He said this with such a heavy heart that I was embarrassed , for I had obviously assaulted my friend's dignity .
After another long pause, Philip again surprised me with more personal candor. "I wonder why God allows good people to suffer." He had , of course, been thinking about his sister.
" I don't really know ," I answered . "I don't think anyone has been completely satisfied with an answer. " I sipped more coffee, then said , " Maybe it's for a greater good. "
A few days later, my wife and I had Philip over for dinner. He was totally refreshed as only a night or two of deep, good sleep can do for a person. My wife Mary Alice asked him how his new boss was treating him .
Flashing a smile that lingered several seconds, Phillip quickly replied: "Well, her name is Doris , and she's about maybe 28. A little assertive and doesn’t know how to say to her employees ' Would you mind doing this?' or 'Why don't you… ?' But then she's under a lot of pressure to turn things around in our department." He always could find some good in anyone, no matter how they treated him.
Over dessert , he had a lot more to say about Doris.
"Listen to this now. I come to work early one morning, set things up in the stock room before I clock in. I didn't know there had been a mistake in the shift schedule and that I wasn't suppose to work that day. My new boss comes in, sees me, says she's really sorry for the mix-up and gives me a big hug. Can you imagine. Then she says, 'We're going make it up to you with five extra hours of work for you next week . ' "
I clapped. My wife, happy, bit her lip.
"I'm not finished, " Philip said. " You know that brake job I've been putting off? Two hundred bucks less than I thought !"
We escorted Philip to the front porch. I watched him walk into the night towards his parked car. " He's wearing that same old shirt," I murmured to my wife. " Be quiet, " she told me.
Philip's walk was slower than ever and his back now slightly hunched and his arms sort of dangling rather than swinging at his side. How ever do his kind mange to survive ? I thought. Yet, I admitted, though halfheartedly, there was something to envy about my friend.
Old Store Clerks Don't Retire ; They Just Get Forced Out
Somewhere in the late 1990's , Philip's department store became more aggressive in replacing full-time workers with part-time people whose medical benefits then ceased and whose hours managers could now be easily manipulated solely for company advantage. In Philip's eyes, the employee turnover was dizzying and shameful. Especially targeted were employees of Philip's age—he now was 75—and who had years ago opted to take that small cash payout instead of a pension. All pensions were soon eliminated. Philip , whose hours had been cut to under 20 per week, now had gone an unbelievable 16 years without a raise . When he told me that, I shouted "that can't be true !"
"It is," he said without visible emotion. "The employee who complains too much finds his hours are drastically cut or they find some excuse to fire him."
His 45 years as a shoe , then furniture salesman had earned him a reputation of unquestionable honesty and company loyalty. Sadly—and stupidly and unethically—the company, with its often draconian rules, was doing its best to discourage loyalty and work diligence in their 500-plus store employees. Nevertheless, Philip remained steadfast to his code of conduct. When I asked him why he just didn't quit, he said he couldn't afford to. But there was another , more entrenched reason . I knew quite well that Philip through the years had bonded with a predictable and work-satisfying workday . This , along with a handful of coworkers, had become home , and he embraced it for better or worse.
Near the end of 2011 , Philip's work hours were cut to five . One day a week he climbed a tall inventory ladder to stock shoe boxes; it gave him back pain. On Jan 26, 2012 Philip quit. What really pushed him over the edge, I believe , was the depression he had felt for two days after his young , ambitious , and most likely insecure female boss had inexplicably shouted at him . It had occurred at least twice, each time at the end of the day when Philip , as a voluntary gesture, began working beyond his quitting time to tidy up some inventory. "She'd start yelling at me : ' What are you hanging around here for ?! …All I could do , Bob, was stand there and look at her. "
" What are you going to do now ? " I asked .
"I don't know. For now, I'm just enjoying being free of her . "
Philip's boss was one of those humans—so I conjectured—who are repelled by what they perceive as inexcusable weaknesses in people . With some alarm they sense—but find it impossible to admit—that this weakness is coiled in themselves. The mere thought of ever becoming in the least like a Philip—despite any virtue that this "weakness" might given them —threatens to shatter their self-esteem.
The more I reflected on what Philip continued to tell me, the better I understood my own frailties and saw why some "strong" individuals dread and even hate being in the company of people like Philip . I recalled poignant, though fictional, examples of this given by two great novelists : Herman Melville ( "Billy Budd") and Victor Hugo ( "Les Miserable's " ) . Holy Scripture ( Wisdom 2: 12-20 ) , also explains the behavior of Philip's boss . It concerns itself with the suffering of Christians who are persecuted and hated , the author writes, by those who say this Christian guy we know is " obnoxious to us [and ] the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us…With revilement, let us put him to the test ."
A week or two later, the head store manager and a few co-workers arranged a retirement occasion for Philip in the cafeteria. There was no wrist watch or severance pay . But there were a few "goodbye-it's-been-good-to-know-you comments from the manager . There also was coffee and two strawberry cakes.
It Couldn't Get Any Worse
When Philip told me he no longer could afford his $650 a month apartment rent, his tribulation finally exasperated me. Now it was me who shouted at him : " But Philip, you did see this day coming, didn't you ? ! And you didn't save for it ?! Or look for a different job years ago?! "
Philip looked at me with that calm and collected expression which again signaled I was about to learn something .
" There was no money to save , " he simply said. " And I told you before I tried looking for work years ago, but I guess I was too old even then."
With the help of a niece who lived in Chicago, Philip moved into a nearby , low-cost retirement home . His Social Security check was surrendered each month to the home ; he was allowed to keep $100 of it. His room was perhaps ten feet wide and 25 feet long; it had a bed, microwave and a small television set . Several old and faded black and white family photos were tacked on the wall or in frames on a small desk. A black and white framed etching of Jesus was on a bedside table.
One morning, a few months after Philip had moved into the home , he was walking out to his 16-year-old Chevy when he began losing breath. The home called a doctor , and he was admitted to I.C.U at Northwest Community hospital . His heart , which had several years ago required an angioplasty , was now pumping blood with only 15 per cent efficiency. Doctors implanted a pacemaker and a defibrillator .
Philip recovered , and within a few weeks we were again meeting for coffee. Heeding his doctor's advice, Philip refused to ever drive again. For five months his car remained with four flat tires in the parking lot, until a mechanic gave him $500 for it. Other than the death of his parents and sister , I don't believe my friend was ever more saddened as upon surrender of his car , his last vestige of independence, he claimed.
For two weeks Philip declined to see me. "I've got a cough , and I don't want to give it to you. " It was a typical and selfless consideration. He did his best not to get close to people with whom he took his meals. One lady whom he sat next to, however, had undetected pneumonia . Philip contacted it and was again back in the hospital . There doctors discovered he had an abdominal hernia but could not operated because of his past heart procedures. Instead Philip was put on a diet of pureed food . He hated all of it.
I visited Philip weekly at his rehab center, where he lost so much weight that his clothes took on a clownish appearance. At first he was in a wheelchair, then shuffled along the hallways on a walker. His nights were practically sleepless because his partially demented roommate would wake up screaming during the night. " For heaven's sake, " I told Philip, " try at least to talk to your roommate about it, talk to the staff. " Philip said he did not want to cause any more discomfort to his roommate. Nothing in his voice hinted of a martyr's attitude nor of shyness or timidity. Would I to remonstrate with him for what I thought was excessive charity, I knew his reasons for it would be embarrassingly superior to my advice that he assert himself. He was too much of a gentleman to hold stock in the cliché the squeaky wheel gets oiled .
Philip slid into a deep depression; his face became grayish, he walked slower, talked less and less, and often took a full minute or longer to make a reply during our conversations. When he did, it was with just a few words. Sometimes there was no reply; he'd just stare at me, wide-eyed until I felt he had lost all human perception. Other times he reminded me of the metaphor the prophet Isaiah uses to describe Jesus: Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter…so he did not open his mouth.
|Steve Reeves ( Superman )|
During one visit, I wanted so badly to see my coffee buddy become a person again that I broke the few rules I knew about caring for a clinically depressed person. I confronted Philip him about his depression , told him to fight it , face it aggressively as he did during those eight weeks of Army basic training . I lectured , preached , pleaded . I wanted him angry, sad—anything to make him come alive, to feel. Finally I said, "Have you , Philip, have you gone to your knees and begged God to heal you ? Have you " ? ! Of course he had.
He nodded his head. " What the hell does that nod mean?" I demanded.
" All I want is some friendly conversation. "
Of course he did. Later I felt rotten for breaking those rules.
I now looked at my friend and said with a full heart, " Philip, I miss our friendship."
" I understand, " he said .
These two simple words seemed to redeem all the compassion missing in my strident , ill-timed exhortations. Sounding perfectly normal for the moment, Philip gently chastised me like a father might: "You know, people have to work out their illnesses in their own way," he said.
I telephoned him a week later and we went for an "outing" to a Panera Bread café . Philip had a cup to tea. I asked him what he wanted most in life, hoping it was something I could help with.
" I'd like to get my personality back," he said barely audible. He said little more that day.
When leaving the retirement home later, I reminded one of the attendants that my friend's fingernails were horribly long and if she would please cut them. She said she would. When I spoke to his niece the next day , she said Philip's physician had recently given a negative prognosis about Philip. I asked her to invite Philip to my upcoming birthday party. Philip told her it was too soon for that. He sent me a greeting card, and I smiled as I opened it but then swallowed hard when I saw his signature. It was tiny , only the "P" in his name was legible ; all the letters were tightly squeezed together . It was the penmanship so characteristic of someone with Parkinson's disease.
I shall continue to visit my friend. If Philip's final day comes before mine, I will know his eulogy has already be said by Saint Francis de Sales, a great figure of the 17th Century rebirth of religious mystical life:
I am a poor, frightened little creature, the baby of the family,
timid and shy by nature and completely lacking in self-
confidence; and that is why I should like people to let me
live unnoticed and all on my own according to my
inclination, because I have to make such enormous efforts
about shyness and my excessive fears….I have been
slighted and I rejoice: that is what the Apostles did. So to
live according to the spirit is to do what faith, hope and
charity teach us to do, whether in things temporal or things
spiritual….So, rest in the arms of God's mercy and fatherly
© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz