“Do not lose these special characters.”

Some years ago in Poland, an elderly professor of mine who had been a student of John Paul II told us that, earlier that day, he had been giving a lecture to some high school students, a society of Young Humanists, as they called themselves.

He says he spoke to them about Dostoevsky and said: “In all of Dostoevsky’s books you can find characters who are very poor from the worldly view, especially in The Idiot with Prince Myshkin who is so poor and naive. But can such persons be heroes from the moral point of view?”

He continued to us, “Of course, high schoolers are beginning to look toward their careers and for success. And I wanted to say to them, ‘Look, if you close your understanding of happiness in a human life to this sort of success, you miss these important characters who were definitely not professionally successful. Look out for your goals, okay. But please do not lose these special characters. Sometimes these aspirations cannot be easily held together. Remember, though, that even if you lose this success for which you strive, you do not need to lose your humanity, your heart, your life,’

Our professor had told the high schoolers directly. “Ethics is important in your life and in mine – in yours because your life is beginning and in mine because it is ending.”

I asked him what sort of response he received from the high schoolers. He recalled that one student had asked, “What about people who do not dream and do not plan but who just want to live with no plans?”

He answered, “This is appropriate for children. But at your age, you have to hold your life in your own hands; the attitude you describe would be childish in people who are your age.”

I am sure that this cut to that young person’s heart.

This professor is someone who is really summoning people to live lives of heroic virtue. No one among us could have reached for their phone as he spoke because we were rapt. And his descriptions and stories were chiseling away at our own weak attention spans.

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