Sometimes I envy professional athletes. They can grow fabulously rich by developing physical skills that leave the rest of us to marvel that someone of our own species can, say, run twenty-six miles in two hours and a few minutes.
And sometimes I envy professional pundits, who earn their living by thinking big thoughts and holding forth. They too develop physical skills, most of them involving the cerebral cortex, which, after all, is of the body as much as the heart, lungs, and quadriceps are.
Every occupation calls for a unique kind of bodily perfection. Many aspire to it but no one ever achieves it, though those who come closest qualify as successful. They’re the ones who win the prize—fame, glory, honor, remuneration.
Vocations are different from occupations. Vocations too call for the development of skills that can be measured, but first they call for something more than that. They call for virtue, a quality whose expression depends not only on your muscles and your brain but also on your soul.
A psychotherapist who was gifted with insight and had honed his analytical skills but didn’t really like his patients would be missing the mark. He could dispense as much wisdom as he liked, but it would be as a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. Whereas his opposite, someone with a mediocre mind but a golden soul, could perform miracles.
Soldiers and first responders—cops, firefighters, paramedics—get paid to reach into their souls to exercise a rare virtue that 99 percent of us depend on the 1 percent to supply: physical courage. True, it can be nurtured and developed. But still. It’s rare. Because it’s so hard to summon.
Here’s an example of what I mean. On a sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, I’m walking down the street and spot trouble ahead. A vertical figure is darting around a horizontal figure on the sidewalk. It’s a rough neighborhood, and my first thought is that it’s a fight and someone is getting pummeled.
As I approach, I see that the horizontal figure is a down-and-out woman who has collapsed on the sidewalk. The figure hovering above her is a middle-aged man trying to improvise some kind of first aid. I ask him if he called 911. He tried but got tangled up with his phone, which he begins to hand to me. His hands and the phone are bloody, so I instinctively pull out my own phone and make the call.
I wait with him and the bleeding woman until help arrives. People walk past us. A few stop to ask what’s going on. Most don’t. The guy has his hand to the back of the woman’s head to keep her from bleeding to death.
It’s not a risk that anyone else on the street that afternoon was willing to take. I wasn’t. I was squeamish, afraid of contagion—and in the wrong. I was standing there with the one person who, then and there, had the physical courage that the woman’s life depended on in the moment. He was one out of a hundred. Call him the 1 percent.
In the language of the Church, he was performing a corporal work of mercy. There are seven categories. The hypothetical hero I alluded to above, the psychotherapist with an average brain and an above-average heart—when he joins those two faculties to counsel and comfort, he performs a spiritual work of mercy. There are seven of those too. Mark Shea has written a book about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It’s serious without being ponderous, and it’s witty without being flippant. You can get it here.
Photo: Church of Saint-Eutrope in Clermont-Ferrand, stained glass (Puy-de-Dôme, France), Wikipedia