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Thursday, September 17, 2020

What I'm Watching: A Conversation with Gregory Peck

A few days ago, I came across this bit of doggerel, which I never heard before, in the comments on a different YouTube video:

Hard times create strong men;

Strong men create good times;

Good times create weak men;

Weak men create hard times.

I have no idea who said it first, and no doubt it would raise some people's hackles, but there is a good bit of truth there.  And it does chime with insights of my own I've had over the years but never bothered to press into words.  It did occur to me years ago that the comforts and conveniences of modern life have made us, collectively, softer, less hardy, and less resilient than our ancestors were, in a number of ways.

I have often thought of how very different the modern world and my own life are from the world my grandparents were born into, and the hardscrabble lives they led growing up on small farms deep in the backwoods, in a time before electric lights, telephones, or motor cars.  I remember their stories of the old days, when daily life was so very different from what I took for granted in the suburbs of the mid-twentieth century.  

In a poetic sense, their memories have merged with mine, now that I am an old man too, and so I can look back in my mind's eye to the latter decades of the Victorian era, and see the broad sweep of time, the vast movements of ideas and technology that have carried us far from that other world that seems so tranquil in retrospect.  It was actually full of alarums and excursions, as every age is - but there is a difference between a gently simmering pot, and one that is boiling over, as ours is today.

Perhaps another time I'll write more about that, but suffice it to say that from childhood on up, my grandparents took in their stride difficulties and discomforts that would leave us modern folks bewildered, wailing, and weeping now - that was already true in the 1960s, and much more so today.  And I long ago realized that it was very good for my grandparents' character to learn how to meet difficulties with hard work and quiet determination at an early age, as flopping down in front of the TV set or whiling away a sunny afternoon with a pile of comic books was not very good for mine, perhaps.  

But I wish now that a little more had been asked of me sometimes, in some ways.  One's muscles grow only when they are exercised; the same is true of one's character and abilities.  My fond parents made few demands on me - it was just an unspoken assumption that I would be a good and decent person, and fortunately for them, I pretty much was, with only a few minor childhood peccadillos along the way.  (Little gay boys usually are very well-behaved youngsters - have you noticed?  I wonder why that is.)

The only thing they really insisted upon was my getting a good education - "They can't take that away from you," they and all my older relations used to say, and so I did exert myself as far as I could go in that direction.  And when all was said and done, what I learned is summed up very nicely in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes; but that belongs to another post.

And yet, while higher education may be a worthy goal, it is not the end-all and be-all of life.  Some things cannot be learned from books, and when the divine reckoning is made, mayhap not a few simple people in humble circumstances may exceed in glory all the scholars of the world, if their characters here below were sturdy and rightly directed.

Gregory Peck, along with Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, and others we could name, often portrayed characters who seemed to embody the best of American manhood - honest and hard-working, decent and determined, self-effacing men of ordinary abilities who believed so much in something greater than themselves that they somehow revealed the extraordinary nobility of the common man:  the imago dei.

Of course it may be said that these fellows we admire so much were merely acting out certain roles, not living them, and that is true.  But even so, their artistic pretense serves to remind us all of the Something More that is always calling us higher:  Lift up your hearts.  And we timorous humans, weak and faltering and greedy as we are, do need frequent reminding.

This is a long-winded intro to a fascinating documentary I hope my truckbuddies will enjoy as much as I have - a mix of film clips and the actor himself answering questions from an audience about his life and work.  Much more interesting - and dare I say, uplifting - than the nightly news.  Give it a try.


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