By Paul M. Lewis

Formally, at least in the Catholic Church, a saint is a person who has led a holy and exemplary life and about whom an official proclamation has been made by the Pope that she or he is now in heaven, the latter evidenced by the fact that at least two authenticated miracles can be attributed to that individual’s intercession with God. Following these criteria, the Church declared just the other day that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (nowadays, the city is known as Kolkata) has been decreed a saint.

Yet, in spite of this official endorsement, controversy has continued to follow the new saint. There are those who argue against the wisdom of making a claim in favor of her saintly life, to say nothing of her actual sainthood. Their arguments are relatively well known. They include allegations of her having been willing to accept charitable contributions from sometimes highly questionable sources, a supposed over eagerness to hobnob with the rich and famous and powerful of the world, a marked tendency on the part of the nuns trained by her to refrain from administering medication that might have saved lives, or at least alleviated suffering—in favor of the goodness, even Godliness, of suffering—and, finally, attempts at overly enthusiastic, if not outright forced deathbed conversions of lifelong Hindus or Muslims to Christianity. Surely, if any one of these is true, it could be said there may be reason to question at least the first criterion of saintliness, that of having led a holy and exemplary life.

Having said all this, it is not my intention here to try to pass judgment on Mother Teresa. I admit to not having any certainty as to whether the allegations made against her, or the nuns of her order, are true or not; as much as some critics vehemently insist they are. And there are large numbers of people who truly revere her for what she has done and who now pray to her. What interests me, instead, is the complexity, the complications, and the controversies that come to us all as we lead our lives. Mother Teresa’s example is striking for the most part not only because she became famous, but also because her actions have had an outsized impact on many people’s lives.

Knotty and convoluted issues related to what is appropriate or inappropriate, good or bad, and right or wrong regarding our various chosen courses of action plague each of us in our everyday lives. Such choices run the gamut from the relatively small, for example, just how bluntly truthful any of us should be in our interaction with others, on to larger issues, such as whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to wear the hijab, or the burkini, in public. Exactly how accommodating, generally, should one culture be towards another in the face of prevailing opposing local norms, especially given the potential threat of violence; indeed, how obliging or amenable ought a culture be regarding any other way of thinking and acting, when there is a clear-cut clash of values? And there are larger questions still, such as who has the right to decide when a life should be considered viable—whether in the womb or after birth—or having to do with the taking of life generally, either in war or by way of a state-sanctioned death penalty? And what of our human relationship with the environment, with the very earth itself? Was it “put here for man’s use,” or do the animals, all of nature, have their own right to exist, totally separate from anything related to human beings?

Clearly, some people have a lot less trouble with moral ambiguity than others. We don’t have to look far in today’s political landscape to find people willing to condemn entire swaths of humanity because they come from a place somehow deemed to be “less than,” or because they are simply perceived to be too different from the numerically prevailing white population. Or just the other day, when it was reported that Kim Jong-un, the iron-fisted ruler of North Korea, condemned a high-ranking military man to death by firing squad because he was politically incorrect enough to slouch in his seat while the Great Leader was delivering a speech. And, lest we forget about religion with which we began this discussion, members of one faith are hardly immune from condemning millions of others to supposed hellfire because they are infidels or apostates or atheists. And to bring it back to Mother Teresa once more—again if what has been alleged is true—just how certain do you have to be of the righteousness of your religion before prevailing upon a man or woman, in the throes of the death agony, to renounce the beliefs of a lifetime in favor of your supposedly superior religion? Where exactly is common sense there, or simple human understanding, to say nothing of empathy, mercy, or compassion?

I guess it could be argued that it’s just all too human for us to believe that the conclusions we come to are the right ones. And to that extent, we may all be guilty of a blind belief in our own absolute rectitude. After all, isn’t this the very nature of what we mean by a value system, that is, that we possess an unshakable inner assurance in it, and a dogged confidence that our judgments equate to whatever is right and best for the world? Otherwise, how else would we have come to these conclusions in the first place, or why continue to hold to them? And if I am right in my values, than doesn’t it stand to reason that you are wrong in yours if you do not agree with me?

The problem with this argument is that values change, not just from one person to another, but sometimes from one stage in life to another (how many young liberals go on to become old conservatives?), from one culture to another, or from one historical era to another, and if that is the case, how exactly can we be assured that we are so absolutely right? Yet, most of us persist in doing just that. It seems to be almost a part of the human psyche, a kind of biological imperative, or at least an evolutionary accommodation that has proven itself to be somehow advantageous for the species. And yet, I keep coming back to my earlier question: what of understanding, tolerance, empathy, and compassion? Surely, these are equally human virtues. Where do they come in to play? Are they not perfectly legitimate, too, just as much as any others that can be named?

When it comes to living with other people, whether they be of a different language, culture, religion, political persuasion, sexual orientation, or simply a completely varying worldview in general, what may be of greatest use is an ability to negotiate, to adjust, to enter into a kind of give and take, and the occasional ability to back off a bit, a simple willingness to adjust and habituate. Dare I say, to compromise? It might even be said that this comes with a degree of maturity in life, that is, learning when it’s best to speak forthrightly, and when to make some accommodations. Although, admittedly, there can be a very fine line between diplomacy and not speaking up when one ought to. As Walt Whitman puts it, sometimes you’ve got to “stand up for the stupid and the crazy.” But he also cautions, “argue not about God.”

Following Whitman’s advice, I’ll keep my own counsel about whether or not Mother Teresa is “in heaven.” But I will, on the other hand, say that I think Donald Trump is a mean-spirited ogre of a man, who riles up the fears and hatreds of suffering people for his own aggrandizement and self-promotion. And anyone who doubts that humans have had a disastrously deleterious effect on the earth, our home, simply does not know what he’s talking about. In other words, sometimes I speak out about my values, and sometimes I choose not to. But I always act according to them.

At our innermost core—or so it is my belief, my value system—each of us is the very image of the Divine Spirit. That image sometimes gets hidden, forgotten one could say, by our overwhelming ego needs, our foolishness and our ignorance. And all too often our vaunted values arise out of this state, what’s referred to in Sanskrit as maya, or illusion. In the end, the best we can do is what Krishna suggests in the Bhagavad-Gita, that is, try to become one with Brahman, the One Indivisible. He, Krishna, then goes on to say that, in so doing, the individual who achieves this state becomes so blended that he or she “sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained.”

Now, there’s a heaven I wouldn’t mind inhabiting, with or without Mother Teresa. And there, I think, is a value no longer subject to change.


By Paul M. Lewis

When I was a young man in my early to mid 20’s, I spent four years teaching in a high school in rural upstate New York. There were a number of things I found interesting about the experience, and a few that were annoying, but overall it was a surprisingly positive experience. I say surprisingly because I had taken the job mostly to get a deferment from the draft. This was in the late 1960’s, and the country was enmeshed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Like many people my age, although by no means all, I was very much against the war. So, once I returned from graduate school in France, where I’d gone on scholarship directly after getting my bachelor’s degree, I knew I had to face the music of the military draft. The deferment they gave at the time for teaching came in very handy. My other option, I’d often thought, was to flee to Canada. And what a different life that would have led to. To an extent no doubt, maybe even if half-subconsciously, I’d planned out in advance the possibility of teaching, because I had managed to get a credential during my last year as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Albany, just before leaving for France.

But, as teaching high school was not really my first choice of a career, I’ll admit I began with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. In my defense, I was only 23 years old, and what does anyone know at that age? While in France, I had perfected my ability to speak the language pretty well, having gone there initially with a good grounding in grammar and literature. Once there, I learned how people in the street really spoke. I learned, for example, that a “cigarette,” which I smoked at the time (Gauloises, s’il vous plaît), was called “une clope,” and “un franc,” the monetary unit then in use (this was decades before the Euro) was more commonly referred to as“une balle.” I also delved into what I thought of as the intricacies of Existentialist philosophy, and considered myself something of a philosopher-poet. Neither of which, as it turned out, I was.

As cringe-worthy as it may be to admit today, I thought of myself as somehow above the crowd when it came to these rural high school teachers. The locale was Lebanon Springs, New York, located in the lovely Berkshires, just a few miles from the Massachusetts border over the mountain from Pittsfield. If a person has any degree of self-awareness or openness, one of the things you soon begin to realize is just how dumb you can be. And I found this out soon enough about myself. If that sounds like too harsh a judgment on a twenty-something year old, maybe the least that can be said is that I discovered just how inexperienced I was in life, particularly when it came to people who actually did something expertly, many of whom had been doing it for a long time, some even before I was born.

That was the first thing that came to light in Lebanon Springs: I saw that the men and women who taught English there, or Social Studies, or Math, or Science were of the highest caliber. They were, by and large, smart, engaged, hardworking, funny, and creative; they cared deeply about their students and about the craft of teaching. And in spite of all, they treated me well, with kindness, courtesy and good grace. There were the occasional yahoos, and here maybe my prejudices further show themselves, gym teachers mostly, who couldn’t distinguish anguish from absurdity (I’m back to Existentialism again), or a Monet from a Manet. But even they, I saw, did their best every day for their students and helped those who most needed it. In four years, I never heard one teacher speak disparagingly of their students; no one ever called them stupid, or fools, or worse. Okay, sometimes they said they were lazy; and some, in fact, were lazy. Just as you can find in pretty much any grouping of a thousand or so human beings anywhere on earth.

As a new teacher, people often asked me if I had any trouble with classroom discipline. As a matter of fact, I did not. But then, this was a rural community and, so far as I knew at the time, recreational drugs were pretty much nonexistent. I’m sure some of the students drank, but that was probably the extent of their substance abuse. I was also working weekends and summers at a local reform school for teenage boys, and I’d learned a few things about how to manage groups of teenagers. Most of the time, it was pretty simple. I decided I would treat my students respectfully, as if they were adults, and intelligent ones at that, and I expected them to act as such; and somehow that seemed to work.

But even at the high school where I taught there were a few outliers. There are always a few, the wise guys who like to mouth off. As odd as it may seem, they were usually my favorites. I liked the bad-boy energy (almost never were they girls), the spirit of rebelliousness, and the intelligence and insight into the bizarreness and absurdity of the world that came with it. These were the ones who were forever asking what the French word for “a seal” was. How they had ever heard in the first place, I don’t think I ever found out, but somebody had told them that the marine mammal we call a seal was, in French, called “un phoque.” And anyone who has even a passing familiarity with French phonetics knows that the pronunciation of this word sounds almost identical with the English word “fuck.” So, this was great hilarity, although by the hundred and fiftieth time I was asked, I will admit to feeling a little bored by it all. Usually I would just stare blankly at them, shake my head, and walk away. For the most part, though, students were in my language classes—French and Spanish—because their fathers had told them that they needed it if they ever had any hope of getting into college. No one, or virtually none, had any real interest. But I had come to expect that, and doing so became just another part of teaching the class.

I liked all of my students. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s not; I actually did. They were good kids, and I did my best to teach them something about another culture, another way of being in the world, if not (lastingly anyway) another language. And some seemed to like me, too. One of them, Tommy C., I taught for three years, and it occurred to me he might have had a little bit of crush on me. Not that I ever responded in kind, except—as much as I could—to be kind to him. Or, I don’t know, maybe he just saw me as a father figure, or an older brother. Curiously, it turned out that our birthdays were on the same day, November 2nd, seven or eight years apart. Somehow, he always contrived to secretly pass me a bottle of Courvoisier cognac on or around that date, as a gift. I probably should never have taken it, and no doubt could have gotten in a lot of trouble for having done so, but he seemed so pleased about it, so delighted with doing so that I always took it. How a sixteen year old could have gotten hold of it in the first place, I never asked.

If I were teaching today, I would never accept such a gift. Maybe it was a measure of my own immaturity and insecurity at the time that I did so. Nothing more ever came of it. He never referred to it later, never appeared to expect anything in return; nor did I reciprocate with better grades, or any sort of special attention. He was already an excellent student anyway, so from that point of view there was no need to. But I sometimes think of him, and wonder what became of him, what he did with his life, and if he is happy.

I hope he is, as I hope all of my former students may have gone on to lead useful and fulfilling lives. Chances of that are slim, of course. How often does that happen with any group of people? More likely, some succeeded, some managed to get by, while others struggled, doing what they could to overcome one failure after another. That is, after all, the way of the world, isn’t it?

What I learned in the four years I taught high school has stayed with me all my life; and what I learned from my teaching colleagues may have been even more important. As Walt Whitman says in the preface to his great poem, Leaves of Grass: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy…” Later, he continues, “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Isn’t Whitman saying that learning from life is the best kind of learning? How else do we attain anything of real, lasting importance?

A couple of years after I left my job as a high school teacher, I was astounded to receive an invitation from the senior class to be the speaker at their graduation. With gratitude, some reluctance, and a large dose of humility, I accepted. My first partner—lover is the word we used in those days—and I had been living in Brigantine, New Jersey. As ill luck would have it, soon after accepting the invitation he and I decided to split up. I will admit to having been devastated about it all and wanted to withdraw from giving the commencement speech. But, in the end, I soldiered on and went ahead with it: and he came with me. I have no idea now what I said to these students, but the energy in the room did me a lot of good. I remembered that I was liked, if maybe not loved, and that I could like—and love, if I chose—in return. It was the last time I saw these young men and women, but not the last time I have thought about them. There is no doubt in my mind that they were my teachers, as much as I was theirs, and for that I will always be grateful.