Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Letter to Our Grandson

Dear Sullivan,

Welcome to the world! I am so glad you are here.

I hope you will be free to become the best possible version of who you are meant to be and of who you want to be. You can rest assured that we will always love, embrace, and support you. I also hope the world in which you will grow up and live will progress toward being an even better world than the one into which you have been born. I hope you will join with people of good will to contribute to that progress.

I hope you will help your world become more sensible. Right now we’re not displaying much sense and much of what we are displaying is bad. We do things that are counter-productive, harmful, and hateful. I hope the world you help build will have a better grasp on reality than the one into which you have been born has. I especially hope it will grow in realizing that all of us on Earth are in this together. In the words of one of your grandfather’s favorite bands, “There is no more new frontier. We have got to make it here.” Any other way of looking at it doesn’t make sense.

I hope you will help your world become more knowledgeable. Too many people in the world in which you have arrived are against knowledge; they reveal that by valuing their opinions over demonstrated facts. My parents (your great-grandparents) didn’t go to college but they taught me that doing so was crucial to having a good life and to helping others find a better life. Your grandparents taught your parents the same thing. No matter what career you end up choosing and what kind of training it requires, it is vital that you continually pursue knowledge, that you develop varied interests, that you read widely, and that you travel to other regions of the world as much as you can. It is also crucial that you respect and listen to those who know more than you do about particular areas. Don’t disparage those who possess greater knowledge than you have. Listen to them and learn from them.
I hope you will help your world become more aware. Specifically, I hope you will help it become more aware that the real is not limited to the physical and that the true goes beyond the literal. I meant what I said about seeking, embracing, and appreciating knowledge, but too many people limit knowledge to what can be seen with the eye, touched with the hand, or tested in the laboratory. There is much more to life than that. I hope you’ll help your world do better at taking the spiritual into account. That’s where understanding that not all that is true is literal and not all that is literal is true becomes important. Learn the power of metaphor and symbolism. Help your world embrace that power.
I hope you will help your world become more humble. Arrogance is way too prevalent in this one. Too many people believe their experience is normative, assume their perspective is right, and put their own wants and needs ahead of everybody else’s. I want you to develop a clear sense of self and to have the courage of your convictions. But I also want you always to remember that you are one of 7.5 billion people (and by 2050 you’ll be one of 9.6 billion people) who live on this planet. In our eyes you are one of the most important ones, but in fact you are not. Remember that the same God made all of us and that you and every other human being have 99.5% of your DNA in common. (By the way, if you really want to enhance your humility, always remember that a chimpanzee has 98.8% of the DNA you have.) At the same time, remember that you are unique. There is only one you. You differ from other people in only .5% of your DNA, but that little bit is crucial. Take pride in who you are, but don’t be arrogant about it. And always be willing to change.

I hope you will help your world become more loving. From a Christian perspective, to love means to put others ahead of self and to give self up for others’ sake. Not everyone in the world is a Christian. Furthermore, not everyone who claims to be Christian is and not all Christians practice Christian love (I know how strange that must sound). Still, you can think, talk, and act in ways that will help people see the value of service and sacrifice. If enough of them can grow into wanting to help more than to be helped and to serve rather than to be served, this world will finally be ready to begin being a better place.

Sullivan, I realize that it will be a few weeks before you can read this letter for yourself. I also realize that it lays some lofty expectations on you. It is not a burden you can or should bear alone. Surround yourself with people who want to journey with you on the road to a better world. Build a community that wants to help make the world an even more wonderful place to be. I pledge to you that I will help you in whatever ways I can for as long as I am here.

Know that you are loved.

Know that your love for other people can make all the difference.

Your Grandfather,


Mike and Debra Ruffin are celebrating the arrival of their first grandchild, Sullivan Nash Gunter, on July 12. Mike’s professor, mentor, and second father, Dr. Howard P. Giddens, was known by the nickname “Duke,” so he has taken that as his grandfather name.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Perfect Mistakes

The other day I was listening to the excellent Georgia Public Broadcasting program On Second Thought. As Athens-based singer/songwriter T. Hardy Morris talked about the 1959 song “Try Me” by James Brown and the Famous Flames, he praised the “perfect mistakes” in Brown’s vocals. Morris was talking about the cracks in Brown’s voice that communicate the song’s emotion.

The phrase “perfect mistake” intrigues me. I wonder if I’ve ever made one. I wonder if anyone has.

Maybe there’s no such thing. But even if there isn’t, there are certainly good mistakes and bad mistakes. The motives behind the actions that lead to the mistakes differentiate good ones from bad ones. Everybody makes mistakes, but what we’re trying to accomplish when we make them matters. 

That’s why every morning we should ask ourselves what we intend to do.  

What are we trying to accomplish through what we think, say, and do? Do we set out to help people or to hurt them? Do we set out to unite people or to divide them? Do we set out to understand people or to judge them? Do we set out to accept people or to reject them? Do we set out to work with people or to manipulate them? Do we set out to build community or to tear it down?

What are our lives about? What developments do we want them to contribute to? What kind of world are we trying to help build?

I read something in a pastor’s church newsletter column almost four decades ago that I never forgot. He was talking about trying to navigate some of the controversies of the time. He said, “I will make mistakes. I choose to make my mistakes on the side of love.”

I’ve tried to live by that. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I hope I made most of them because I was trying to practice love, which from a Christian perspective means to give yourself up for the sake of others and to put others’ needs ahead of yours.

I know that all of our nation’s leaders aren’t Christians. It’s even possible that some who claim to be in fact aren’t. But when I think about what they say and do, I find myself more willing to accept the mistakes they make if I’m convinced they’re trying to help folks and not to hurt them. I find myself less willing to accept those made by leaders who seem not to care if millions of people get hurt.

If you want to witness a perfect mistake, you can try listening to the man known as the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and Soul Brother Number One.

If you want to see political leaders make good mistakes, look for the ones who are trying to do something good and helpful. If you want to see the ones who make bad mistakes, look for the ones who aren’t..