I suppose it's fitting that after writing about the need to have grace for the sins and foibles of others, my resolve should be tested. The test ground was the U.S. Naval Academy/Marine Stadium. The occasion was the commencement and commissioning of roughly 1,000 new naval and marine officers. The service academies represent---in America, at least---something long ago lost in our training of young people. These institutions mold mind, character, and physical skills while so many other universities have abandoned the idea of a Western canon, grow squeamish at the mention of character, and think physical education amounts to keeping their charges from drinking to death or contracting venereal disease.
The young people who attend these schools differ from their peers. Every one of them goes voluntarily into harm's way in service to their country, at a time when patriotism, for many of their countrymen, is at best a sentimental affectation, something to be displayed at the start of baseball games or when the French say something nasty about our country.
It's humbling to be suddenly in the presence of 1,000 of your betters, all of them half your age. But back to the test, which was my ire at seeing so many of my fellow audience members display no sense of decorum whatsoever. For example, it is traditional to stand when the graduates enter the field, yet hundreds of people around us sat and chattered and ate, like they were awaiting a kickoff. It is good manners as well to dress for the occasion, yet all around us were men dressed like schoolboys, boys with the deportment of gang members, and young women who might a generation ago have been mistaken for streetwalkers. I suppose in an age when women have no compunction about approaching the communion table with their breasts hanging out, it might be too much to expect more decorum in other venues.
The struggle for me, in those moments, is not to anoint myself righteous judge of my fellow man. The reality is that the grown man three rows in front of me, who sat when he should have been standing, who wore shorts and a sloppy T-shirt and stuffed his face with chicken strips, should have been raised better. The other reality is that I have not walked one yard in his shoes, and have committed far darker sins than any flaws he had on display.
I have been both pharisee and reprobate, often within hours of one another, because I am a hypocrite as well. It helps me, in occasions like that graduation, to recall all the times I acted like a cretin, all the times my ill-breeding came to the fore, all the times I was more focused on my immediate pleasure than on my responsibilities as a citizen and a Christian. To be sure, some of the people around me should have behaved better. But then so should I. And in the end the acts for which I will be held accountable are my own. No sense in adding judgmentalism to the list.
When I could get my self-righteous mind off the seeming failures of others, I saw that what was happening on that field was something far greater than any of us in the audience. Whether or not the man in front of me had on a suit, whether or not I could get over my smug self-righteousness, on that field were honor and courage and the beginnings of sacrifice being lived out, as has been the case for decades. There's something comforting in knowing that good, strong traditions outweigh the fleeting vanities of man. And there's something edifying in being allowed to participate, even if only as an observer.