One morning before classes my senior year of high school, I headed over to the table where a number of my friends were sitting. As I walked up, I heard one of my dearest friends talking to the group, and I was surprised to hear a fair amount of profanity come out of his mouth.

I grew up in the inner city, and I went to high school in a public high school, so the profanity wasn’t anything necessarily shocking, and it’s nothing that I would tut-tut to anyone about hearing. The thing is, though, that my mom’s attitude toward it was more or less that people use it for shock factor when they don’t have a real argument. Add to this that none of the adults around me most of my childhood swore, and it wasn’t considered a really “Christian” thing to do, and I just didn’t do it either.

There have been instances in my life where something will trigger an insight that isn’t necessarily obvious. In that instant, I realized that this was the way this friend normally talked. I also realized that the reason I generally didn’t hear him talk this way was because he liked and respected me a lot, and so when I was around, he was a little more careful about his words.

Over the last forty years or so, the number of “basically good” characters depicted in television and in literature has diminished tremendously. “Christian” characters are usually depicted as hypocritical or unbelievably naive, and those who are unreservedly good are fakers and killjoys. Everyone these days is somehow fatally flawed, unable to get past trauma, and really shouldn’t be expected to stay away from sin, because one has to have some fun in this life.

I can only imagine how my presence approaching that table would be portrayed in modern media. A few years ago, I remember reading an article online about a couple of classic characters in literature, and the author claimed that Anne from Anne of Green Gables was not necessarily meant to represent a real person, but was merely “aspirational”, because no one is really that consistently good, especially considering the trauma she had been through.

It was an interesting theory, and one that I thought about for awhile, but which I eventually had to reject. Anne is far from being a perfect character, especially in the beginning. That being said, she tries her best to make her way through difficult situations. Not all that long ago, this was what was pretty much expected in our society, even from children. The idea of trauma wasn’t foreign, but rather it was much better understood that trauma was unavoidable, and that the worst thing a person could do would be to wallow in it and use the trauma to excuse future bad behavior.

Sun setting outside of Kenosha winter

As a kid reading Anne of Green Gables, it never struck me that someone like Anne couldn’t exist. Furthermore, she’s not an anomaly when it comes to literature, and especially children’s literature, which was built on the stories of children having to rise up to deal with situations that most children wouldn’t have to deal with. Anne is interesting, funny, smart, fun-loving, and caring in spite of the hardships, and without having to sink into moral depravity.

I hung out with a “crazy” group of friends in high school. We were all incredibly smart (yes, it was a selective-entry high school) but we had fun, we had adventures, and we cared about each other deeply. We had trauma, but I think we were working hard not to let that define us. In some sense, I was a little bit the “little sister”, but part of that was that I actually was the youngest in the group. Each one of us brought something to the group, and one of the things I think I did was to inspire a little bit better behavior.

I know that sounds weird and definitely has connotations of being a scold or a killjoy, but it wasn’t that at all. It was, simply being myself with all my faults and foibles but conducting myself in a way that was real but that was also – dare I say it – aspirational. I didn’t realize it then, but people respond positively to that, even unconsciously.

Over the course of my life, as much as I know that I have my faults and failings, I’ve been surprised at how many times I have kind of taken the role as a positive influencer, even with people who are older and whom I have deep respect for. One of the most deeply meaningful compliments I ever received was from my first Russian professor, whom I hold in the highest regard. I was walking across campus, talking to a friend, and I saw him, and, as I usually did, I smiled and waved because it was always nice to see him, even for a moment. Normally, if he saw me, he’d smile and wave back, and we’d continue on in our directions. On this day, though, he came up to me and said, “On a morning when everything seems to have gone wrong…” he filled in a couple things, including accidentally missing a class, “…I see your smiling face, and I believe that something can go right.”

stick light Bible prayer book

Be as a light. One of my kindergarten Bible verses was Matthew 5:14 – “Ye are the light of the world, a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” I still have it memorized from the time I was five. The funny thing with a lot of these verses though is that as much as I understood them as a child (and yes, very literally), the deeper meaning of them rolls over a person more slowly with time and life experience. In context, the verse follows the Beatitudes, which talks about the hardships of living a Christian life in an unbelieving world, and precedes the admonition: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” In a nutshell, you will be blessed for following Me, even if the world will try to take you down; do it anyway.

We have been conditioned in the modern day to believe that people who try to live in an aspirational manner do not exist, that deep down, everybody is always driven by their own desire, and that the “good” is always balanced, if not outweighed, by baser motives. This is a heresy, but is entirely pervasive in today’s thinking. Not only is there the idea that saints don’t exist, but when there is a “contender”, so to speak, there becomes this constant need to try to pull that person down. We know, though, that saints aren’t a separate race, or even anything but “ordinary” people, but that in their lifetimes, they too made the decision to be aspirational, to “be a light”. Many of them died for that decision. However, it is a thing that each of us can do, every day, in both small and big ways.

A quote by St. Porphyrios posted by Fr. Andrew Jarmus recently that seemed timely

dore canto 31 white rose

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