We are all shaped by countless interactions with others. I believe that the vast majority of these impactful moments occur when we don’t even know others are watching.
This was true of my learning from a man not only respected as one of the great jurists in American history, but also esteemed as a role model for how he affirmed others. This is why I housed Walking with Justice, the new book about the uncommon lessons of my life’s greatest mentor, in the eulogies given by his two sons.
This story pairs the big send off that we each will face one day… with flashbacks to the small moments that explain how my mentor became the man he was. The experiences he had. The choices he made.
One of these experiences, occurring decades before my mentor became a federal judge, happened when he was simply watching his mother…
When Max was a boy, hobos frequently visited his home and asked for a contribution. These men were respectfully known as mendicants in his home. One man scared him a bit. He came down to their home from Scranton, about twenty miles to the north. He would knock on the door and in a high nasal tone ask for some money. His mother always said yes.
“No one can refuse to give aid and assistance to their fellow man because they are poor and don’t have the money,” Jennie instructed her sons. “There are always poorer people than you so even though you may be poor, you’ve got to assist your fellow man. If someone comes asking for money, give them one dollar no matter what, no questions asked.”
One day, five-year old Max was playing. His aunt, known for her generous spirit, was visiting from out of town. He heard his mother say to her sister, “Look out the window and see what’s happening.”
Max joined them at the window and saw the hobo from Scranton in the yard picking up his mother’s clothespins. They peered out the window for a couple of minutes watching the man collect the clothespins. He headed toward the front of their house. Jennie answered the knock on her door.
“Would you like to buy some clothespins today?” asked the man.
“Yes, I would,” replied Jenny. “How much are they?”
“I have six clothespins. That will be fifty cents.”
“Wait a minute while I go get some change.”
As Jennie went to get money, her sister vehemently opposed her decision. “Jennie, why would you do such a thing? Those are your clothespins. Have you lost your mind? You’re not going to buy your own clothespins!”
“No,” said Jennie. “That man needs our help and deserves our respect. If he wants to retain a little bit of dignity and sell me my clothespins, I’m not going to complain. I would have given him the money anyway. This way he has some dignity left, and I’m pleased to do it.”
Young Max learned a lesson about respect that day. A lesson he never forgot.
As the noise of political discord and incivility roar loud these days, this story reminds us that our greatness lies in how we choose to treat others. We all can choose to develop habits that grow patience, foster respect, and embrace hope.
The qualities that made Judge an extraordinary mentor and great man are in all of us. As we continue to embody in our own lives the values we most respect, we will make an impact…as others simply watch how we treat our fellow human beings.