Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #023. First published in the St. Cloud Times June 23, 2009

I’m sometimes asked how I come up with my columns. There’s no formula.

I’ve got my theme, lifted from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute where I used to work — “the renewal of human community” — and the Times’s directive: tie to something in the news and give a local slant. Lots of wiggle room.

About a week after one is published I go on “next column alert.” This one operates on two levels — what it’s about and how it came to be — and before we’re done it may not be entirely clear which level is which.

The first Thursday of June I was driving along Second Avenue in Waite Park and saw Andy Virden waiting to cross the street. If you’re lucky like me, and know Andy, you understand that simply seeing him was sufficient to get a column idea started. But where it would go, I wasn’t sure.

Then, within 24 hours, signals started coming from all directions.

A magazine article reported a plan, long in the making and soon to be realized, for a Statue of Responsibility that will be positioned on the West Coast, to complement the Statue of Liberty.

Another article summarized the tilt of economic research toward recognition that we are not by nature selfish, me-first creatures — that in fact evolution has frequently selected for altruism, caring for one another.

Then I read Times Writers Group columnist Barbara Banaian’s encomium to James Rugg as an example of citizenship and patriotism for his insistence that we are losing our liberties, government is a menace, and taxes are evil.

Here was my project: To redress a balance by holding up Virden as a very different standard of citizenship and patriotism.

I doubt there is a single point of public policy on which Rugg and I agree, but the differences aren’t simply political. They go deeper, to judgments about human nature, the range of individual responsibility, the purpose of human community.

Virden is one of my heroes. He could serve as a model for that Statue of Responsibility. He has spent his whole life demonstrating what the economists are only now waking up to.

Andy frequently tells you what he sees. He doesn’t see the way most of us do. He has been totally blind almost all his 81 years. But I, with eyes in pretty good shape, am frequently instructed by Andy about what’s really going on.

For 38 years Andy took the pulse of the area from the concession stand he operated at the St. Cloud Post Office.

The range of his acquaintance is staggering. Last year I drove a truck in the Waite Park parade, with Andy as a passenger. Nearly everybody called out his name, with evident affection. From the sound of the voice he knew who it was.

Andy is an advocate for the blind — for their liberty (don’t offer to do something for him that he can do for himself) — but even more, he is a champion of people caring for others, not just through charity, but also through government policy and investment (the government, after all, is “us,” not “them”).

During his years of faithful participation in St. Joseph’s Church in Waite Park (he’s a mainstay of the choir), Andy has been shaped by Catholic social teaching on the way liberty, responsibility and community are woven together for the common good.

I thought the column was done but then, by chance/fate/providence, the next DVD in our Netflix queue arrived: “Blindsight.” (Put it on your “must see” list.) Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to scale Mount Everest, leads six blind Tibetan teens up a 23,000-foot peak near Everest.

What he and they learn about success and teamwork, about liberty and responsibility, about altruism and empathy, is of a piece with what I’ve learned from Andy about citizenship and patriotism. It’s not the blind leading the blind; it’s the blind leading the sighted.

I’m sure Andy crossed Second Avenue just fine. For the sake of this column, I’m glad he was standing there.