Ernie’s Attitude

In honour of “International Languages Week” this morning the weatherman said, “Today’s cold blast of air is a result of El Nino, which for those of you who don’t speak Spanish means ‘The Nino’.” (Forgive me.)

Ernie Banks died this week. You may not recognize the name, but for baseball aficionados, Banks belongs on the Mount Rushmore of all time greats. The best power hitting shortstop of the 20th century, the 11-time all-star is remembered and celebrated, not so much his many athletic accomplishments – as impressive as they are — as he is for his infectious, unconquerable optimism.

One opening day, after the Cubs had just come back from beautiful spring training weather in Arizona, they were facing the Cardinal’s intimidating ace Bob Gibson on cold, gray Chicago day. When it started snowing in the 6th inning, a teammate remembers Ernie’s saying, “Isn’t this a great day. We’ll keep nice and cool, so we don’t get overheated.”

Some fortunate folks are apparently born with an optimistic inclination; sunshine is in their DNA. But for most of us, disposition is a more of a deliberate matter. We have to make a conscious decision about our mindset, and my point this morning is that attitude, mindset, approach — call it what you will — is actually something we can control. We are not a “victim of the fates”.

If you’ve studied “Hamlet,” you may remember the young prince’s telling his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Act 2, Scene 2) For all his dithering, Hamlet was no dope. He was on to something there. Remember, too, that Rosa Parks didn’t sit down because she got tired. She thought about it. Her decision to change was intentional. You can take that same approach with your own attitude.

Scientists believe that one of the ways you can adjust your thinking is by consciously trying to cultivate a sense of gratitude, and they have identified an “attitude of gratitude” as one of the keys to cultivating an optimistic spirit, one of the most powerful antidotes to depression. If you can get into the habit of noting things for which you are grateful, even simple things, you can actually adjust your disposition’s “factory setting.” For example, if you are presently thinking, “Golly, I love listening to the principal talk at assemblies. I sure hope he goes long this morning!” you’ve probably got a positive, if somewhat dubious mindset!

In the course of your life, you may bump into a handful of people, who like Ernie Banks, remain optimistic despite unfortunate circumstances. (The Cubs were almost always abysmal throughout Banks’ career, yet “Mr. Cub” predicted a pennant each and every spring.) Chris Taylor, an Old Boy from the class of ’71 and former UCC colleague, is the most upbeat man I know, despite the fact that he’s had to deal with some daunting health challenges. He has taken what he has learned and is now helping others who are facing their own health crises. He is “making a difference” in a profoundly positive way. If you are lucky, you may have a friend like Chris, someone who has climbed off the emotional roller coaster of life, and despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” made the conscious decision to be positive.

This decision is not always easy; it’s requires more than just jumping on the “Up with People” bandwagon. An extreme example comes to us from Auschwitz, where next week survivors of the death camp will gather on the 70th anniversary of their liberation. These men and women have been gathering every decade since 1955, and now that they are all in their 90’s (some are over 100), they have decided that this will be their final reunion.

Victor Frankl, after Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most famous of the Auschwitz survivors, wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a gripping book in which he details his experiences in the death camp. Frankl comes to the conclusion that, even under the worst possible experiences imaginable, there is still what he called ultimate freedom. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The wisdom of a Holocaust survivor might be a lot to take in on a Monday morning in late January, but you have a choice right now. You can look out the windows of Laidlaw Hall this morning and see nothing but a cold, gray, inhospitable sky. Or you might choose to see something entirely different. When friends from my hometown of Philadelphia ask about how I cope with the Canadian winter, I like to tell them that, at the risk of imitating a cheesy sitcom, “It’s Always Sunny in Toronto” – regardless of the weather.


16 thoughts on “Ernie’s Attitude

  1. What about finding balance in life versus over-achievement and little else. I dare to say that UCC’s version of the IB might be worse than the usual version, some have said.

    I saw a reference last week to a study (or perhaps just a theory) that said that university students from public high schools do not tend to fall apart adjusting to university as much as their independent school counterparts, as they are not coddled through as much.
    I would want to see more on that; interesting if true.

  2. Wow – what a powerful piece. Prayers has come a long way although I remember the typical brief message of “be nice to each other today, ok?” but otherwise it was usually a quick reading of Plato etc. I think I did my reading from Caddyshack…

    Your piece is both meaningful and powerful which of course makes it memorable. To be honest, while I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, it was advice like this that kept me going through some very dark days when I was at UCC. That plus folks like you who I knew had my back and gave me the confidence to accept the challenges, deal with them and try to make the most of every moment. I learned pretty quickly at UCC that despite the notion it was a privilege to be there, life is never fair. It’s up to you to make a positive difference for both yourself and those around you.
    That being said, it’s important to have things not go your way as it forces you to look at life through different lenses and your piece nicely sums this up. We are extremely fortunate to have you at the college and this speech is just a small example of why.

    As they say, your attitude determines your altitude so many thanks for keeping things flying high up there!

  3. Jim,
    Fear I.m no an optimist. But –I agree–more as I grow wearingly old-that we not victims of fate and we must will ourselves- if necessary–to be grateful.
    All things abound in grace, Hope you are all well and keep your reflections coming. We enjoy them..
    Yes, Ernie Banks a special man, who had an extraodinary, natural grace. May his soul reat in peace.

  4. Jim,

    Your piece reminded me of the Monty Python piece in Life of Brian and the song, ‘Always Look on the Brights Side of Life.’ Not everyone’s cup of tea, I realize,; but the Python’s were pretty good at what they did, back in the day–long before the mockery of religious figures was as tempestuous a practice as in the cultural present).

  5. I think that guy was predisposed to sweetness.

    By the way, he could play dis position and he could play dat position, but I think he was an power-hitting infielder however you slice it.

  6. (This brings to mind the description of the amazing attitude of the sister of Corrie ten Boom, as described in the christian classic ‘The Hiding Place’.

    It’s been a long while since I read the text, but the account of Betsie (Corrie’s sister) is impossible to forget…

    Having provided a physical hiding place for Jews in the family home following the Nazi invasion of Holland during WWII, Corrie and her sister Betsie were (eventually) sent to Ravensbrück. There, Betsie, who had a beautiful sweet spirit, showed incredible faith.

    In the midst of the unimaginable horrors of the circumstances in which the sisters found themselves, Betsie (to Corrie’s amazement), still managed to find something to thank God for:- the fleas that infested the barracks. This meant conditions were so unspeakably terrible, that the guards did not venture into the area where the inmates slept, leaving Corrie and her sister to bring the Gospel (and thus light in unspeakable darkness) to their fellow prisoners undisturbed. (I can’t remember which Bible verse(s) were referenced….possibly 1 Thessalonians 5 v.18…..not sure.)

    Corrie survived the camp. Betsie died in Ravensbrück.

    The inspiring and humbling power of the account is lost in my poor synopsis…but still.)

  7. Really good, Jim . . . who else is going to stitch together so seamlessly your favorite book, the great Ernie Banks, this anniversary at Auschwitz, and the weather in Philadelphia?

    Thanks for sharing it. I was in need of an adjustment to my “gratitude” dial, and you provided it.

  8. Another wonderful talk. You may match the local ministers for sermons — and with both better messages and better attendance(!?!)…

    This one resonates especially because I grew up in Chicago with Ernie Banks; after all, I graduated high school in 1969 (yes, the year of the Miracle Mets — otherwise known in Chicago as the Cubs Collapse — I think we were up 11 1/2 games in August)…. But Ernie was always magic: “It’s a great day; let’s play two!” is something I still say to friends and family. And he was a hell of a player — two MVP awards on a last place team?!? (1958-59, I think — “you can look it up”)

    Anyhow, thanks for an important message — one far more powerful when you cite Victor Frankl and the Auschwitz survivors; you are also citing my grandmother about attitude. She did not escape the camps — she was already in America — but she helped others…

  9. Even though I am in the warmth of Florida, I am dreading the return to the cold of Toronto next week. Your words will encourage me to try to be cheerful about it!

  10. I appreciate these thoughts, and think they are important considerations for young people. Along these lines, I am reminded of the distinction between being happy and cheerful – with the latter implying an external manifestation of one’s optimism and joy, while happiness might be a more private matter.

    It seems to me this is also an important aspect of maturity – recognizing the need to wear your joy and optimism so that others can see and benefit from it. It’s basic community caretaking and empathy.

  11. JP

    Ernie was great. I always quote him on a beautiful summer day after playing golf. Let’s play two!

    In honor of Ernie, I am staying positive all day (or at least until something bad happens!).

  12. Great homily, Jim. Reminded my of a quotation I just posted as a comment to your blog:

    “It is your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude.” – Zig Ziglar

  13. I am on board with this one for sure. Nicely done. I agree with your Frankl reference. That was a moving book and also eye-opening to your points made about it.

    Thanks for sharing –

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