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Friday, May 10, 2013

Words to Live By 7: On Self-Respect

by Seattle Jon (bio)

Words to Live By is a series featuring short selections by eminent men and women from the mid-twentieth century. Originally published in This Week magazine, the selections represent a mosaic of what people were thinking and feeling in challenging times. Read previous entries here.

On Self-Respect
by Phyllis McGinley (Pulitzer Prize Poet)

"Don't let your sins turn into bad habits." - St. Teresa of Avila

The woman I quote was one of the wittiest, holiest, most delightful creatures who ever lived. She was speaking to a nun of her order, an overscrupulous girl who came to hear in tears, berating her own evil nature. "Ah, my dear," Teresa consoled her, "all of us are human and prone to sin. Just see to it that you don't let your sins turn into bad habits."

The paradox is as full of common sense as it is of the saint's famous salty humor. Certainly to err is human, and Teresa knew it as well as the poet Alexander Pope. It is not the occasional lapse but the repeated fault which turns us into the sort of persons we do not wish to be. We can all mourn a trouble. It's the habit of self-pity which corrodes character. To fly into a rage now and then is excusable. But to let a habit of anger master us is to court destruction. We all like gossip, it's the amusing small change of conversation. But a habit of malice can turn us into bores, troublemakers, monsters of mischief.

Few of us are murderers or traitors or thieves. Yet unkindness is a sin, too, and so is selfishness or intemperance or spite or hate or sloth or detraction. And how many of us are altogether free of those flaws? Wisdom lies in the ability to forgive ourselves such human failings - to tumble, pick ourselves up, shake the dust off our spirits, and try to avoid the next mistake.

No matter what degree of religious faith we profess, all of us yearn to be decent people and we believe in free will. Teresa has given us the best possible advice to follow on the thorny, difficult road to self-respect.

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