Sunday, November 14, 2010
Books By Their Covers
This is the assembly address to the students of JPII on November 21, 2010.
After winning the Nobel Prize for Physics, Max Planck was in high demand to give lectures on his research. So he toured the country, driven around by a chauffer, giving essentially the same lecture. Soon he grew tired of the talk and said so to his chauffer. His chauffer said: “Dr. Planck, I’ve heard your lecture so many times I think I could give it, and no one would know the difference. “ Planck thought that was a wonderful idea, so they traded clothes, with Planck driving his chauffer to the next lecture. His chauffer, as he promised, gave a brilliant talk and received a standing ovation at the end. But what they did NOT anticipate was a question and answer session. A scientist raised his hand and asked a question. Of course, he had no idea about the answer but thinking quickly, he responded: “I am surprised to be asked such an elemental question in a gathering such as this. Why the answer is so deceptively simple, I am going to ask my chauffer in the back to answer it for me.”
There’s an interesting point to this story, I think. People can be amazingly proficient at appearing to be proficient, when in fact, there’s nothing of substance underneath. The old Canon camera commercial said it succinctly: Image is everything.
Is image, everything? Is appearance what matters? Billions of dollars are spent by Fortune 500 companies on ad campaigns that try to convince you that it does. And they’re largely successful at it. If you don’t believe me, let's do a thought experiment: “If I could convince you that the Kmart brand of generic tennis shoes were made of the exact same materials as Nike tennis shoes and were exactly of the same quality, but only ¼ the price, would you lace up your Kmarts for your next basketball game? If I could show you that Walmart brand shirts were the equivalent of Tommy Hilfigers, would you proudly wear your Walmarts to your next party?
We often pay too much attention to appearances. There was once a good looking junior boy at my old school that had impeccable manners. If you asked him a question, he’d look you right in the eye and say “Yes, sir, Mr. Weber” and he’d shake your hand very firmly. But I learned quickly, with regret, these outward manners were just a pretense. He used this act to earn freshman girls’ trust—they were so flattered that a good-looking, well mannered older boy took such an interest in them—but he would misuse their trust and cast them aside like used furniture once he had obtained what he wanted from them.
There’s a saying that “Character, like a photograph, best develops in the dark.” It’s when no one is watching that we truly reveal who we are. Ethical people don’t cheat because they’re afraid of getting caught; they don’t cheat because it’s dishonest and they’re committed to learning, not to the pretense of learning. Ethical people don’t use God’s name in vain or curse because adults may hear them and they might get in trouble, but because it disrespects God and is crude or vulgar.
Our challenge as Christians is to live privately as we live publicly—to try and be the kind of people God wants us to be even when no one is looking. Otherwise, we are just play-acting at best, or acting as hypocrites, at worst. This is what St. Paul means in Ephesians when he challenges us to live as “children of light” and turn away from the darkness.
May God give all of us the courage and grace to live our lives in the light, so that our example may encourage others to do likewise.