What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

By that standard none of us receive a perfect score. Worse still, we live in a historical moment in which the highest officials in our country don’t even pass the daily public tests. But this story is about someone who did pass. Hearing about him might allow the rest of us to take heart that virtue is still found in quiet places, where a person is willing to give up something great for something good. Where no audience will ever know.

The tale came from an unremarkable man. He was in his late 40s, a guy who blended into the crowd and had a pretty dreadful middle-management job. Not an assertive fellow. His wife had hen-pecked him into submission, inheriting the role passed to her by his parents. You could almost see the peck-marks, the little dents on his flesh. I once asked him about his sex-life and he laughed while rolling his eyes in a way that revealed he hadn’t had sex in a decade or more. If you knew about the less-than-satisfying marriage, you might have told him to “man up.”

Let’s call him T.

T was a religious person, a bloke who took his faith seriously, even if he relied too much on Jesus’s message, “the meek … shall inherit the earth.” Still, he was bright, companionable, and funny. He considered himself Republican in the old style sense of fiscal and religious conservatism, but had friends among Democrats. One other notable quality possessed by T: he knew more obscure baseball statistics than anyone I knew or know.

If you believe a good man is hard to find, he might be your guy. Or not. Too easy, too timid, too unmade and overmatched by some of the challenges of life. Like many in my generation, the Great Depression through which his parents lived left their only son with a tendency toward economy. Not rich, T drove a high-mileage, well-kept car, up in its years. He did much of the maintenance himself. A polyester kind of soul, but not without talent.

T occasionally employed a local handyman to do odd jobs around his home and another property he inherited when his folks died. The worker was a casual acquaintance, not one invited for dinner or coffee. Not even a person T talked baseball with. Just someone T knew and called if work presented itself. By T’s observation, the fellow wasn’t the best jobber, but good enough and available enough and needed the work. In other words, no one special.

Our hero heard the man was in the midst of economic difficulties. I could tell you T was always selfless, but I don’t think so. Yet, on this occasion, he did something pretty remarkable. He counted out $714 (baseball fans will recognize the number*) in fifties and twenties, a ten and four singles; enveloped the bills, walked over to the handyman’s place on a day he was out being handy, and put the money-laden wrapper in the mail box. No message, no name, no return address. He did not want to embarrass the tradesman or make an offer that might be rejected. T needed no thanks or congratulations or celebration of his good deed. He did not expect to know what happened to the cash. Helping another was the end of the story for him. I found out only in passing because I was his therapist. I’m sure T told no one else, including his wife.

We live in a time when every act of greed or self-interest can be rationalized. Where too many “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. The yellow-fellow on top doesn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” Or Muhammad or Moses or the Buddha or any other prophet or deity or role-model than the god he makes of himself and his wallet. No, he is not the creature you hoped your sister would marry, your daughter would date.

We Americans are said to be a charitable people, but charity too often applies only to those of our religion, our party, our tribe. Virtue signaling – trumpeting our piety or generosity – masks the misdeeds we do elsewhere. I guess it has always been so.

Research tells us people tend to look at some others as objects, the homeless for example. We hide ourselves in social fortresses of like-minded contacts who hate the people we hate (if we still consider them human) and praise the folks we like. No new thoughts are permitted, no doubts allowed, and “virtue” takes the form of rage and self-congratulations.

But when I begin to despair of the human condition, I turn my remembered gaze upon T: the most average of men, the most extraordinary of men.

He and others I can name offer me hope. He is not perfect and he would not tell you he did anything special. Just what any good person would do.

Thanks, T.

You gave me something, too.

Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The sheet music cover photo of a once popular song dates from 1918.

*The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.

14 thoughts on “What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

  1. T sounds like a really nice guy who has a big heart, and you, Dr. Stein, sound like an awesome therapist who sees the strengths amid T’s problems. The strongest heroes do their heroic deeds in silence – and sometimes without awareness. I’ve been homeless and in psych wards, I’ve failed and have gotten mediocre grades in high school. No one saw me, a short Asian-looking female as a Marine, or as a cadet in training. Only when I graduated in college at the top of my class did anyone say something nice to me. Recognition feels great, as do compliments, but the best reward is knowing who you are as a person – without the performance. I’ve met really awesome people – albeit broken and somewhat lost – in homeless shelters and psych wards. They were more than their woes and traumatic histories; they were human beings who were struggling to survive. In the quiet of the night or the clatter during the day, I would see them give their last dollar to help someone, hear the purpose in their cries of heartache, feel their wish to be accepted for who they are – not their job, their status, their deeds, their titles, or their connections, but rather what they possess when all that material is stripped away. They need not do anything but just be – even in brokenness – to be a person worthy to be, to live. No spotlight, no status, just the self. It is one thing to learn about our self, but another to begin seeing the good even in the most impoverished or disabled person – the good in a person, the strengths and their potentials, the heart behind the anger, sadness, standoffishness, and pathology. I admit, my motives are not always pure, that I sometimes like recognition or reward, but I humbly learn from people who do great things in silence or who clean toilets for a living or who struggle every day to wake but somehow muster the energy to open their eyes. I learn from the hearts of people like T, of the homeless, and of the disabled. Thank you for sharing.

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    • You are welcome, PP, and thanks to you for your more than apt comment. I’m about to make a strange suggestion. Everyone knows “Frankenstein,” but usually from some awful, Boris Karloff type of movie. The book touches on a number of points you made. We might substitute a down and out, crushed-by-life homeless person for the “monster.” And the book underlines how we all need human contact and acceptance, which Shelley’s monster never received because of his appearance. In a sense, his creator and his society made him into a monster.

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      • Thank you, Dr. S. The book you suggested sounds like a great read! I will put that on my to-buy list soon. In therapy, we often learn about how us as individuals are responsible for our reactions to societal things, but it would be great to acknowledge systemic issues as well. I just watched the newer version of Beauty and the Beast (with the actress from Harry Potter) and it reminded me about something similar a few weeks ago.

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      • “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley. Everyone thinks of it as a horror story, and, I suppose it is. But it is the horror of what man can do in his treatment of his fellow man and himself by so-doing. About 160 pages in my copy.

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  2. Thanks for sharing that story about T, Dr. Stein. I believe that there are countless people like T around us and across our world. They are the ones who remind us what it truly means to be human and to strive to become our better selves. You do a pretty good job in that regard.

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  3. The great medieval, Jewish philosopher and scholar, Moses Maimonides, wrote prolifically on ethical and legal matters. Since giving tzedeka, charity, is an essential part of Jewish life, he devised 8 levels of charitable giving, each considered greater than the next, as a guide for the individual. The highest, according to Maimonides, is helping one in need through a loan, partnership, or employment, thereby increasing the person’s chance for self-sufficiency and his own ability to give charity. The second is giving to the poor without the giver or recipient knowing each other, like a charitable fund. The 3rd level, which is what your patient T. did, is knowing the person to whom you are giving but the recipient does not know his benefactor. Like you, Gerry, my faith in humanity is often renewed through such stories of quiet heroes, humility, or selfless giving. I believe these acts are not as rare as we may think—just hard to notice amidst all the ugliness.

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  4. Oh Darn, I’m slipping. I thought 714 was Hank Aaron until I read to the end and you set me straight.

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    • At least you knew Aaron was up there, Joan. The “700 Club” is this. Barry Bonds (762), Henry Aaron (755), and Ruth (714). I saw Bonds hit #754 in SF. Baseball experts believe (and I agree) that Ruth remains the real home run king. To wit, in the 1920 and 1927 seasons, the Babe hit more round-trippers by himself than any other American League team!

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  5. A beautiful story…T is a quiet saint. I like kindness, gentleness and generosity in a man (and woman). This gives me hope that there still is integrity amongst the citizens of our country,

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  6. There still is, Nancy. And, on this side of the pond, Resistance, too.

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  7. I am part of the Resistance! 👍🏼

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