Those who read my column know that I get a lot of hate mail from liberals. But few know that I get plenty from conservatives, too. Most come from conservative atheists and agnostics tired of the religious references that permeate some of my columns. Because I’m simply not open to the suggestion that I should "keep my religious views to myself," I have never responded publicly to such critics.
Today, I’m making an exception.
Recently, a conservative atheist wrote a very angry yet moving letter about the passing of his wife. She suffered from cancer for a prolonged period of time. Apparently, she was in terrible pain for months before she finally passed. After decades of marriage, he found himself alone in a house full of memories. That’s when he wrote me insisting there isn’t a God and urging me to "get off of religion" and stick to my "bread and butter" topic of campus censorship.
The conservative atheist’s letter reminds me of another great woman who died of cancer. The year was 1962. The woman’s name was Nell Myers Rester. She was my maternal grandmother.
Nell’s death at the age of 48 was probably the result of an error by the physician who removed a cancerous organ during a prior surgery. Later, when another organ was consumed by cancer, the doctor was consumed by guilt. He concluded that he could have also removed the other organ and, thus, saved her life. After it was too late, he tearfully apologized to her at her bedside. That was back in the days when doctors spoke honestly to their patients instead of worrying about future litigation.
When my grandmother passed, that doctor hopped into his car and drove from New Orleans to Gulfport to attend her funeral. There, he told my mother that for years he had to console patients but that Nell Myers was the only patient he ever had who tried to console him. That story was corroborated by several black nurses who had asked to come along to Nell’s funeral. That was rare in the segregated Mississippi of 1962.
The consensus was that Nell didn’t care that the doctor probably made a mistake that prematurely ended her life. She only wanted to make sure that he was all right and that he knew he was forgiven. During the advanced stages of her illness, she even wrote him an uplifting letter that he kept in his office desk for the rest of his career.
And the doctor wasn’t the only one changed forever by the way my grandmother handled her bout with cancer. My mother – upon hearing the doctor’s tearful account of Nell’s loving treatment of him – decided that her faith in the face of adversity was conclusive proof of the power of an Almighty. So she set about proving an important point regarding life and how to live it:
Whether a tragedy remains a tragedy or becomes a catalyst for good is entirely a function of individual free will.
And so my mother was soon collecting money door-to-door for the American Cancer Society. When I was a young boy, I remember cigarette smokers slamming the door in her face. But she just kept on going for years after her mother’s death.
And then there were the trips to the worst slums in Houston. Mom would buy a bag of groceries and just knock on someone’s door in the ghetto to deliver them unannounced. I remember the way the recipient’s faces would light up when she just walked away without asking for anything in return. She didn’t even need to open her mouth to witness to them.
Then there were the prisoners she began writing in the 1970s. I never saw their faces until 20 years later when I began visiting prisoners myself. That was when I was 32 – about 34 years after Nell died. About that time, I realized I really had known my maternal grandmother after all.
Of course, it doesn’t take a tragic death to transform a life from one of complacency to one of great works. In fact, it is a duel tragedy when we wait for a tragedy to take hold of our lives and force us to choose a life of gratitude over a life of self-pity.
And that is why I often urge people who have fallen into the habit of self-pity to try a little experiment. Variations could be adopted by my conservative atheist and agnostic readers. But, for most, I suggest they begin with a change in the way they pray.
Rather than praying to God the same way you talk to your store-bound spouse – merely listing the things you want Him to get you – you should confine yourself to enumerating the blessings you already have. In fact, you could do it in alphabetical order – picking one blessing for every letter. If you follow my advice, your only problem will be choosing between the many blessings you have but rarely even think about.
It happened to me a few nights ago when I took my own advice. There was a thanksgiving for my friends at the Alliance Defense Fund who are taking the campus cultural wars to a whole new level. Then there was one for the wonderful people at the Atlanta Young Republicans who were such wonderful hosts on my recent tour to Georgia. And, of course, there were the wonderful people at Auburn University I spoke to last week in Alabama.
By the time I reached the letter "D" - to give thanks for the three Downy Woodpeckers in my back yard - I was fast asleep. And that proves another point about life and how to live it:
Self-pity and gratitude are mortal enemies. Where one exists the other cannot. Since both are highly contagious, individuals must choose gratitude before becoming too thankless to do otherwise.
Of course, my conservative atheist and agnostic detractors might not like my prayer advice. Perhaps, someone needs to market a calendar that lists every day as Thanksgiving just for them. Regardless, I am thankful for their letters whether angry, moving, neither, or both.
Maybe my gratitude will be contagious. Only time will tell.