Role Models: In Books and in Life

Scooch over, Lizzie Bennet and Jo March. Make room for Becky Paulson.

For decades, my favorite literary role models have been Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice and Jo of Little Women. Both lived in the 19th century, Lizzie in England and Jo in New England.  I admire them for their smarts, independence, and if the term is not too old-fashioned, “goodness.” Enter Becky Paulson.

In Salt of the King: Music, Madness, and Energy Lines in a Small Desert Town, Henry D. Terrell continues his suite of novels set in 1970s West Texas. Becky Paulson is the linchpin of the book’s sprawling plot that involves a missing teenage girl; young men of varying promise; a fundamentalist, home-schooling family (Becky’s); a record producer; a rock singer and his manager; and cops.

Henry D. Terrell

Terrell tells you all about recording equipment used in the ‘70s, “ley geo-energy lines,” and Masonic practice. I read those sections the way I zip through the whale-processing chapters of Moby Dick. The heart of the book is the women: Holly, Helen, Mabel and Becky. Terrell shows how each one’s personality and talents play out in their striving to live authentically – even while constrained by rules not of their making. 

Becky is a senior at a Christian college. What draws me to her is her psychological sense of freedom of speech and movement. This open mindset allows her to have disagreements without contentiousness or acrimony. I would love to know how to do this.

The most telling interactions involve her father, Grover. Grover feels it’s his God-ordained duty to direct the lives of everyone in his family. As he says to Becky, “It’s the job that the Lord gave me, and I take it deadly seriously.”

It’s Becky’s response that’s interesting: “Of course, Father,” says Becky. “You’re a great provider. You’re the rock we all depend on.” And she means it. 

But, when he tries to stop her from going off with a classmate to work on their film project, she tells Grover, “This has nothing to do with you, Father … I’m leaving!” But, she adds, “I’ll see you tonight.” She’s not mad, but she’s not abandoning her assignment, either. 

I find it very hard to disagree … with some people … on some issues.  It’s more than just trying to be agreeable, although that’s a part of it. It’s not just feeling the weight of the other side’s mountain of wrong assumptions underlying their position, though that’s part of it too. It’s not just worrying that I won’t be able to make myself understood, which is also a factor.

I mostly fear my own reactions: the tightness in my chest, the edge in my voice, the hardening of my heart to this other person. Even if I prevail on the facts – which I do not doubt I can – I have lost a part of my humanity. 

Why do I let my very fervently Catholic colleague think that I haven’t thrown the baby Jesus out with the bath water? Why don’t I voice my opposition to guns when a tennis friend boasts of buying a new .357 Magnum? Shouldn’t I say something to my neighbor when she complains that her nephew’s son looks strange because the boy has the Japanese facial features of his mother and the red hair and blue eye color of his father?  Another neighbor who has had an anti-vaccine blog since before Covid has no idea how stupid I think that is. 

I am hardly the only one who gets caught up in this dynamic. Time after time, I have seen my compadres – people I agree with – get shrill, angry, and mean in advocating for OUR SIDE. Is that what it takes to get change? Do you have to shake people out of their complacency? I don’t know. 

But it’s a glorious revelation to witness someone who can transcend this angst, who can escape the ideological straitjacket, without giving up the point of view. 

I have known real-life examples.  One was a tennis friend, Amy Hackett. I was in my thirties. She was ten years younger. We would talk over iced tea after playing. And she would say, “Why doesn’t everybody just get paid the same?” or “They should have health insurance for everybody.” Not as a political point and with no thought of the potential blowback to such a comment.

Another person who had a profound effect on me was Dotty Barnard. She was the Director of Missions at St. Luke’s Hospital in the 1990s. In a male, hierarchical administration, white-haired Dotty stood out. 

Dotty Barnard

Dotty could have been window-dressing, someone grandmotherly when MBAs were squeezing pennies. But I soon realized that Dotty took her job absolutely seriously. She wanted nothing less than to have everyone working with patients to see them as as whole persons: mind, body and spirit

Dotty championed holistic medicine, including Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or CAM. She promoted spirituality as an essential component to patient care. She knew of the deep skepticism that many doctors held about such practices as acupuncture, meditation and aromatherapy. But she was steadfast in her vision of holistic medicine. She provided a labyrinth for stress relief and meditation for patients and their families. She found uplifting, not sappy, elevator posters. She hosted CAM speakers. 

 Portable canvas labyrinth in use at St. Luke’s Hospital, St. Louis, MO.

She was the only person from the hospital who showed an interest in acupuncture. It was considered quite exotic then. I had learned traditional acupuncture in Taiwan before I went to medical school. I knew how scornful most of the doctors were about Chinese medicine. I was afraid that that derision might fall on me. Dotty encouraged me. 

As a woman physician, I had tangled with arrogant, mansplaining doctors and administrators. Dotty didn’t argue with the doubting docs. She never raised her voice. She found a point of agreement, however tangential, and forged ahead. What a revelation to me!

Dotty was as implacable as water, and as soft and calm. I know this by experience. In her gentle persistence, she got Bill and me to attend an interfaith dinner. I’m not sure how she did it – we were so protective of our free time. And we were of no faith.

I saw a better way of being in the world by the examples of Amy and Dotty and Becky Paulson.  Their lack of bitterness and defensiveness while upholding their truths gave them great freedom of speech and action! And they were more effective in advocating their point. This is how personal transformation happens, from the inside out. 

Tell me: What have you learned from your role models? 

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

4 replies on “Role Models: In Books and in Life”

I must say “Amen” to these witty sentences. “Their lack of bitterness and defensiveness while upholding their truths gave them great freedom of speech and action! And they were more effective in advocating their point. This is how personal transformation happens, from the inside out. ” My paternal grandmother used to teach me, “When someone disagrees with you, and becomes very angry with you about what you have said, just smile and say, ‘let me tell you an interesting story’. You can use characters’ words and behaviors to illustrate your point.”

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You know I generally don’t have a problem stating my disagreement with someone in a calm matter of fact manner. I can listen to the other person’s opinion and reasons and see if they make sense and shift my own views if so. If they don’t make sense or are based on misinformation, I might point that out or try to make them curious about it; but only if I sense they can hear it. Otherwise I figure they’ll find out or not and I’m not going to waste breath and get aggravated trying to reason with a rock. But what I have trouble ignoring is when they are causing harm to others. I then feel some obligation to at least point out the possibility that if they are wrong what that means to those they would harm. Sometimes they don’t care and all I can do is feel sad.

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