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Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

Wednesday October 12 2016

Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we can accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil that we do. . . . Our vocation, I believe, is to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of material.
          —Paul Tournier

My father was an air force pilot, an officer. His precision as a pilot kept him safe while flying fighter planes in World War 2 and while flying cargo planes in the decades after the war. My mother excelled socially. She was and is a hostess extraordinaire, serving guests beautiful food in a well kept home. She thrived at bridge games and charity events. Apart from about 15 extra pounds my father gained in his 30s and could never lose, my parents never gave me the slightest indication that they had any flaws or weaknesses.

I grew up expecting to excel at everything I undertook. I was an outstanding student, Girl Scout and piano player. Imagine my frustration when I couldn’t get rid of my extra pounds and failed to measure up to my slim and well dressed mother. And then when I fell into depression in my first pregnancy – a depression caused by a vitamin deficiency that lasted off and on for 16 years – I was utterly confounded by my weakness, failure and inability to excel.

As you can see, the quotation above from Paul Tournier evokes a lot of reflection for me. For a person raised in a seemingly perfect family, with high expectations to replicate it, Tournier’s words are unsettling, yet also somehow reassuring.

I remember a startling moment when I was a young mother in the midst of my recurring bouts of depression. One of my friends said to me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

I said, “What in the world do you mean?”

She replied, “I’ve been thinking about thank-you notes. I’m not good at keeping beautiful cards handy. I’m not good at writing eloquent notes. I’ve learned it’s better to take some white paper and write, ‘Thanks for the gift,’ and throw it in a plain envelope and mail it, rather than wait around until I can do it perfectly. Because I’ll wait around forever and the note will never get in the mail. So, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

In my family, if you thought you might do something poorly, you didn’t even attempt it. The ability to do many things well creates a myth that our efforts – human efforts in general – can be good and lovely and close to perfect.

In a departmental seminar last week, one of my colleagues said, “There is no part of our efforts that doesn’t stand in need of redemption.” He was responding to the seminar speaker, who had said that God’s truth, beauty and goodness are evident in creation but are also marred by sin in every setting and every action.

The poorly written thank-you note shows a lack of care – a form of brokenness and sin – even as it affirms the value of the gift and the preciousness of the connection between gift and giver. In a very small way, that’s good coming from evil. But does the eloquent thank-you note, written on a lovely card, also need redemption? Perhaps there’s some pride or paternalism or self-aggrandizement in it. Perhaps I can’t identify the part of my beautifully written thank-you note that is in need of redemption, but just because I can’t see any aspect of brokenness there doesn’t mean my action isn’t in need of God’s grace and redemption.

I’ve focused here on thank-you notes, a small and increasingly disregarded part of daily life. I could have talked about other “small” things like meals, clothing or sports. I could have talked about “big” things like jobs, ministries, parenting or marriage. But no matter what aspect of life we talk about, increasingly I see that there is no part of my life that does not need redemption. Yes, we are in danger of running out of good material to work with, whatever we do. Paul Tournier’s words help me remember my need of God every moment.

(Next week: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with. Photo of my father with his P-51 during World War 2. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)



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