I watched two shows this morning on PBS, The Italian Americans, about the very real challenges Italian immigrants faced integrating into American society. The other, Instruments of Change, spotlighted Ruth Greenfield’s Fine Arts Conservatory in 1950’s Miami where she provided arts instruction to local youth, irrespective of race or economic status.
Italians are known for their wonderful cuisine and for organized crime, among other things. This program illuminated the danger of trying to climb into prosperity too quickly, via either organized crime or political radicalism. But the “silent majority” of Italian immigrants who took the slow route to acceptance and success quietly achieved it, albeit in later generations.
This reminded me of my research in Cambridge, England, on my father’s ancestors. We had already discovered that our mother descended from English and Scottish kings, and we could certainly see that heritage in her ambition and high brow tastes. My Dad was hardworking, honest and had the most perfect character of anyone I’ve ever known. I was surprised, therefore, to discover that at least this branch of his family were listed in the 1800’s census records as “farm laborers, beer sellers, blacksmiths” – clearly working class. After watching many British TV shows depicting the life of the 1800’s, I formed a composite image of the “faithful steward” who rises slowly into positions of trusted employment with the aristocratic landowners. This took generations of lowly toil, often being treated unfairly and bearing it with patience, but in the end, rising steadily. My family benefited from both heritages, and I am deeply grateful for their examples. It’s a lot to live up to.
Ruth Greenfield and her husband Arnold were severely punished for their defiance of the rules of segregation, losing their employment, their luxurious home, and ending up starting their own business in a much poorer part of town. They looked forward with hope to new opportunities rather than back in anger, self-pity, or bitterness. After Arnold’s death, Ruth continued to promote the arts, starting the Lunchtime Lively Arts concerts that started a cultural revitalization of downtown Miami. She’s now revered as a pioneer, and numerous dancers, musicians, and artists trace their success to her early encouragement and training. Many remember being told, “You are special,” and how it fueled their upward climb for years afterward. If Ruth and Arnold hadn’t persevered, their contributions would have been much smaller; but they ran the race of patience and many people won.
I think life presents us with a fundamental choice of either taking the slow but real road to progress, no matter the consequences, or trying to take the false road to “Easy Street.” The false one is like the Up Escalator that moves us along without much effort, but we’re not able to see where it’s really taking us. Or we can choose the stairs where a lot of muscle power is needed and the destination is labeled: Top Floor. We just don’t know how many flights we have to climb!
I also believe that life is designed like this for a reason. We read in the New Testament:
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword,
piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow
and is a discerner of thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
I believe that reason is to see what we will choose, all on our own. It isn’t earthly success that matters as much as character development and the heritage we leave. And, in the end, we all must face our maker, ourselves, and those we influenced, and account for our choice. I think we’ll be happier if we’ve taken the stairs and avoided shortcuts. As LDS Apostle LeGrand Richards once said (paraphrased from memory):
The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but they grind very, very fine.
I take that to mean, all good choices and the intent behind them will ultimately be fully known and rewarded, while all bad ones will lead to regret and sorrow.
Let’s look within, then, to decide which path we’re on, and be faithful stewards wherever we find ourselves. I believe we’ll end up being glad, no matter how hard the journey.