I don't often hear people use the word "grace" these days. The name, Grace, doesn’t seem as popular as it used to. Except for the late Grace Kelly, I seldom see it on celebrity websites. And the quality of grace, itself, seems to me to be in short supply. Indeed, many may be more familiar with its antonym, than with the word itself. How "disgraceful!"
Grace doesn’t seem to have a precise, mathematical definition. Instead, I think you have to piece together a variety of meanings to grasp the concept of grace.
Grace occupies a prominent position in Christian theology. People credit Thomas Aquinas with defining grace as "unmerited divine assistance that is given to man because of his sanctification." I'm all for that, but what about grace for meritorious acts? Can grace be earned?
In Jewish tradition, a famous saying exemplifies grace. To paraphrase from the Hebrew, "A person's true colors are revealed in three circumstances: kis, kos and kas." Those three terms comprise a clever play on words since all three spellings look the same but are distinguishable only by the vowel in the middle.
"Kis," which translates as "pocket," is a surrogate for money. "Kos" which translates as "cup" refers to the tendency to imbibe alcoholic beverages. We’ve probably all seen people at their best and worst when it comes to managing money and handling liquor. The literal meaning of the final word, "kas," is "anger," but a more viable interpretation might be "stress". If you can keep your composure during periods of stress then, one might say, you have grace.
What does Wikipedia have to say about grace? One of their definitions is quite similar to the concept that we’ve just considered. For Wiki, grace is "poise under fire." (Wiki offers "grace under fire" also as definition of "poise,” but we won't get into Wiki's tendencies to create tautologies.)
Today, I was called to see, simultaneously, both a patient with acute pain and a mother who had become depressed about her child's brain tumor. Just then, one of our secretaries interrupted to ask that I fill out an HMO form. That (relatively) trivial request was one straw too many, I had a meltdown, and the poor secretary bore the brunt of my wrath. At that moment, clearly, I did not act with grace.
Another of my favorite “grace” definitions is "the characteristic of being simultaneously considerate and magnanimous." That's Webster speaking.
I saw that trait of being “considerate” in the first chairman for whom I worked in Philadelphia. An accomplished clinician and scientist, he wrote many articles but always made sure that his junior faculty received their share of publication credit. Everyone who worked for him could feel his thoughtfulness and generosity. I often think of him when evaluating my own ability to support the people who report to me.
Grace has the potential to reveal itself, it appears, whenever one might exploit a power differential. Yesterday, I got a call from a friend in the US who wanted to buy some diamond ear rings. He was aware of Israel’s being a world leader in gems, so he wondered whether I knew anyone in the industry who might give him a good price. I called someone whom I know and inquired about prices for 4 carats.
Based on the howls and guffaws that came from the other end of the line (If I didn't previously know what "LOL" meant, I learned it on that phone call) , I realize that the experts deemed my question ridiculous because I had not mentioned any parameters of fine stones, like cut, color, quality, or luster. I can see that, to an expert, my amateur question must have sounded pretty funny, so I began to wonder whether I, myself, tend to lord my own professional knowledge over the people who come to seek my help. If I were to do so, then I would be, unfortunately, missing an important opportunity to summon grace.
As fate -- or whatever cosmic force, if any, you choose to envision -- would have it, today is a particularly appropriate day to discuss our grace. Today is April 15th, the infamous income-tax-filing day in the U.S., the country of my birth. Not everyone is aware of this fact, but if you are unable to file your tax return on time, the U.S. government may grant you a time extension. In other words, even the government has a “grace” period.
If the U.S. Internal Revenue Service can offer grace, then isn’t each of us capable of summoning the same quality?
Until next Monday, Shalom.
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