Aunt Helen's nameplate sits atop my office doorway.
My most popular talk for Midtown Spiritual Community was about my audacious Aunt Helen. I have many stories to tell of her, only a few of which will be in this post. You probably will want to know especially what she shares in common with Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump, given the title. Let me add that it has taken me decades since her death my third year of seminary to better appreciate her.
No, she was no Auntie Mame, but to our fundamentalist Christian way of thinking, she nudged the confines of our worldly experience a little wider. For instance, she persuaded my mother to take us kids with her to see films like Bye, Bye, Birdie and Frank Sinatra’s Come Blow Your Horn, exposing us to a world that had little to do with Jesus.
She was the first in the extended family to fly, as far as I knew, though I would later learn her little brother (my father) had flown a friend’s biplane over my mother’s house in Pittsburg, Kansas during their courtship.
A high school mathematics teacher at Field Kinley High School in Coffeyville, Kansas, Helen Glaser was active in the National Education Association (NEA) and founded a girls’ pep and service club called The Tornado Tillies, whose emblem of a tornado found its way onto her gravestone at my urging. Among her effects we found dozens and dozens of grateful letters from “her girls” who had found their way into vocations and families around the world.
It has only recently occurred to me that women of her time were not necessarily encouraged to enter STEM professions—science, technology, engineering, and math. She was “just” another teacher in a family that had many teachers.
An avid Democrat, Aunt Helen took both my sister and brother to the Democratic Party convention in 1960 in Los Angeles. My sister recalls being there the night that John F. Kennedy was nominated for the presidency, and my brother remembers seeing Adlai Stevenson in one of the convention hotels. (Btw, in those days being a fundamentalist Christian and a Democrat were not mutually exclusive!)
A souvenir from the convention.
When she retired and moved to L.A., Aunt Helen befriended a gay couple in her apartment building and quite earnestly explained to my brother that they didn’t like the term “homosexual” but used the word “gay” to describe themselves. I had not told her that I was gay.
I gave the eulogy at her funeral, describing her as both a Martha and a Mary, busy with many activities but always attentive to what was most important. I would now describe her as a progressive follower of Jesus for her time.
While I was in high school and college, she would pass along little pamphlets containing sermons of the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale from Marble Collegiate Church, which she may have visited when she went to New York City for an NEA convention. She seemed to appreciate his Power of Positive Thinking approach to Christian living. She would have been proud that, decades later, several of the Collegiate congregations would invite me at various times to speak, preach, and lead a retreat.
Invited to preach for Pride month in 2015.
Perhaps Dr. Peale’s writings helped her inspire her students, especially as faculty advisor to the Tornado Tillies.
Peale is said to have inspired Donald Trump and his father, though in a different way. Trump’s use of superlatives for himself and his work has been traced to Peale’s positive thinking approach to life and to business, something that attracted the powerful and the conservative in New York City. It must’ve attracted the progressive and the compassionate as well, because that’s who I encountered in my dealings with the several congregations whose association his ministry spawned.
What struck me as I read the recently released Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela was that Mandela too was inspired by Dr. Peale’s 1952 bestseller, again in a different way. Writing to his ill wife, Winnie, as a political prisoner on Robben Island in 1969, he says:
“The Power of Positive Thinking” & “The Results of Positive Thinking”, both written by the American psychologist Dr Norman Vincent Peale, may be rewarding to read. The municipal library should stock them. I attach no importance to the metaphysical aspects of his arguments, but I consider his views on physical & psychological issues valuable.
He makes the basic point that it is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness & live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory. [p 79]
In her foreword to the letters, his granddaughter Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela concludes, “This inspirational outlook sustained my grandfather’s unwavering pursuit of justice and an equal society for all South Africans, and is one that I think can be applied to many of life’s challenges.” [p viii]
For Nelson Mandela, this outlook did not lead him to self-aggrandizement or self-congratulations but to magnanimity in the face of enormous odds, enabling him to write:
The principal task before us is the overthrow of white supremacy in all its ramifications, and the establishment of a democratic government in which all South Africans, irrespective of their station in life, of their colour or political beliefs will live side by side in perfect harmony. [p 46, from a letter stamped October 23, 1967]
Fortunately for me, however, my friends here, who are endowed with virtues far in excess of anything I can hope to command, are remarkable for their ability to think and feel for others. [ p 60, from a letter stamped October 14, 1968, of his fellow prisoners on the occasion of being denied attendance at his mother’s funeral]
How differently Aunt Helen, Nelson Mandela, and Donald Trump have applied the powers of positive thinking! Maybe we need a corrective text entitled, The Power of Magnanimous Thinking.
The OED defines magnanimity this way:
Well-founded high regard for oneself manifesting as generosity of spirit and equanimity in the face of trouble etc.; loftiness of thought or purpose; … superiority to petty resentment or jealousy, generous disregard of slights. Now rare.
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