Today, my post takes off (at least, I hope it will fly) from the topic of manners to a general discussion of the best ways of doing things. Doing things, that is, so as to be not only understood but also loved and valued by those around us, and not only appreciated for our best qualities but also forgiven for our worst. And it all starts with a little exemplum or fable told to my brother and myself by our mother when we were small. Not that I am necessarily an example of the best way of doing things, though I often aspire in that direction, but that these things are usually best inculcated when people are young and just learning their first steps of behavior in social settings (and what are any of our settings but social settings, since we are social beings first and foremost, as we have been often told by social scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and the like?). Here’s how the story goes:
There was once a very rich and fashionable hostess who loved to give extravagant dinner parties and afternoon teas alike. Everyone who was anyone came to her parties, and had the time of their lives, even though the parties were somewhat formal and even occasionally a bit stuffy. They discussed her behind her back with a great deal of indulgence for this formal, stuffy quality, loving it too because they loved her.
At a certain party, when a host of literary lights were in attendance, one guest in especial was watching our hostess and her arrangements, a society page writer who lived just on the edge of penury, but who was usually asked as a particular act of kindness toward the hostess’s cousin, who was a good friend of his. In looking around the table, he noted who was there, what was served, and made mental notes of the sparkling conversation, planning his column carefully for the next day, and modestly determined to give the hostess as good a write-up as possible, in exchange for tolerating his humble presence at her party.
Everything went along just fine, until the very end of the main course, when the salad was served (European style, instead of before the meal, American style). Aswim in a sea of positive emotions and not a little of wine, the writer looked down to discover that there was a huge fat worm in his salad! What to do, what to do? At the very next moment, while he was pondering his dilemma, he noticed that the hostess, with a carefully disguised expression of horror on her face, had noticed exactly the same thing, the worm in his salad. Their glances crossed. He hesitated only a second. Heroically, he pronged a fork into exactly the bite of salad with the worm, placed it in his mouth, and chewed and swallowed. He was rewarded the next minute by the hostess’s warm and glowing smile radiating down the table and bathing him in its effulgent glow. It all seemed worth it, though the worm had tasted a little bittersweet.
He really had reason to think it was worth it, however, six months later, when the hostess passed away and left him as her only heir. And he never told a soul what it was all about, though many people speculated that he had been an autumn romance of hers, or that she had left him money in exchange for his article about her dinner parties as a whole, which really wasn’t even a probable motive.
Now, one might feel that in the telling this story appealed too much to a child’s (nearly innate) “get-rich-quick-by-being-a-suck” tendency, except for the manner in which the story was told. For my mother was quick to point out that it was only good manners not to tell, and that ordinarily no one could expect to be left potloads of money in exchange for merely obeying the dictates of good manners. In vain I pointed out that the writer could merely have surreptitiously lifted the worm out onto the table or floor; yet I too was cognizant of his magnanimity in actually eating the worm and thus hiding it from all eyes.
And perhaps here’s the lesson (I always cozy up to a good moral): when we find a fault, while pointing it out may be meritorious in the sense of keeping to exactitude, sometimes hiding a fault (in someone else) is far more honorable, and may have unexpected and not-to-be-calculated-upon benefits besides. These benefits extend not only from others to us (in which case they appreciate us more because we hang fire and don’t criticize them for qualities or acts which perhaps they can’t help), but from us to us ourselves (in which case we learn to judge ourselves more generously as well, knowing that we held our fire). As Shakespeare’s Portia from “The Merchant of Venice” has it, “The quality of mercy is not strained….” And that’s my post for today.