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Grace at the holidays and beyond

When we think of the best people we know of — whether they be friends or family, co-workers or bosses, teachers or pastors or neighbors, even celebrities — what usually stands out is their graciousness.

In his intriguing new book, “Friends Divided,” Pulitzer-prize winning historian Gordon Wood describes the on-again, off-again, on-again friendship between founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

What stood out for me in this excellent recreation of our nation’s history was the contrast between these two great men. Adams, short and pudgy in appearance, was irascible, combative, sometimes paranoid, always sensitive about his plebian roots — his father was a farmer — and, despite his degree from Harvard and his obvious brilliance, he both “despised and envied … affluence and elegance.”

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Jefferson, on the other hand, was tall and handsome, came from wealth and was always the perfect and cultured gentleman. Politeness and good humor and grace meant everything to him.

These two men’s personalities are reflected in their countenances. (I love histories that depict the characters in pictures. Back in the ‘70s, I contacted two London museums to obtain photos of the women discussed in my book, “The Feminine Irony.”) In his standard photo, John Adams, our second U.S. president, looks defiant and ready to argue, whereas Thomas Jefferson, our third president, in his famous photo, looks pleasant, accepting and friendly. Perhaps not the sort of man you’d want to have a beer with, as was said of former president George W. Bush, but certainly, you’d accept a glass of chardonnay with Jefferson.

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Stephen O'Connor's debut novel, "Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings," reimagines the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

And while it is undisputed that both Adams and Jefferson played major roles in the founding and governing of our country, it is Jefferson who has retained the greater popularity, despite his flaws, which include slave ownership and infidelity (Adams, on the other hand, never had slaves and had an enduring marriage to his wife, Abigail). He has presence, a kind of grace that seems rare today, when insults and nastiness abound, especially from the top of our government, which gives Hemingway’s oft-repeated ideal of “grace under pressure” even more meaning.

The word grace comes from the Bible, and carries many meanings: good, generous, helpful, pleasing, caring, thankful.

Some of us, like Jefferson, are born into gracious families. But grace is a trait, a way of living, that can be cultivated, especially when one is sensitive to and genuinely cares about others.

Sadly, however, some people just lack that capacity. Calling people names, for example, is totally ungracious.

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While walking at the mall a couple of weeks ago (my usual exercise), I ran into a woman I often see and sometimes chat with. “I saw you at Gertrude’s yesterday,” I said pleasantly, referring to the restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Are you stalking me?” she barked.

Muscles, heart rate, strength, motor control — and the brain — all are stimulated by exercise. We know that exercise can alleviate stress, counter depression and prevent disease. But despite study after study showing that exercise keeps people healthier, many are still reluctant to commit to doing it.

Her comment reminded me of a long-ago incident, in third or fourth grade, actually. A new girl had moved from New York with her family to my town in New Jersey. When I and another classmate approached her, she snarled and said, “do you see any green on me?” We were startled. “That means I’m not ripe enough,” she added, “so stay away.”

To this day, I don’t know what she meant, but fortunately, she learned to be gracious and friendly and, in a few years, became the most popular girl in our class.

But back to the mall. Mary Alice, also known simply as M.A., walks every single day, when she’s not serving “Meals on Wheels.” She knows the names of all the walkers as well as many shop keepers. And everyone adores her.

Being kind and caring and gracious is something we all should be thinking about, especially around the holidays. As the saying goes, “you have to be a friend in order to have a friend.”

When we think of the best people in our pasts — or today — whether they be friends or family, co-workers or bosses, teachers or pastors or neighbors, even celebrities, what always stands out is their graciousness.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is lynneagress@aol.com.

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