[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on Feb. 15 2014.]
By Roxane B. Salonen
I’ve been a bit of a grump lately when it comes to Chinese fortune cookies. The “fortunes” these days seem more often universal clichés than predictive notes about the future.
Not that I’d put stock in them if they were prophetic. It’s really more about a fun end to a night of take-out, after all.
But something about this latest one stood out.
The message had come from my youngest daughter’s cookie. Our family has a tradition of reading our fortunes aloud. But after quietly absorbing her message, she looked at me. “Mom, this is yours.”
It’s been known to happen within our brood. A cookie gets bumped around and ends up in the wrong family member’s hands. We’ve had to rectify one of these mix-ups before.
Reading aloud from the small slip of paper, she said, “Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity and humanity.” Then, reaching around her littlest brother, she placed it in front of me.
“Oh, I love it,” I said, feeling honored she’d thought of me but even more, glad she was first to receive it. The message grabbed me in its simplicity yet profundity. What a fortune cookie.
The rubrics of writing have been coming at me for decades now as I’ve worked to learn the mechanics of the craft. The first three essentials on the list weren’t anything new, but that last one, now that was a zinger.
I’m imaging my writing toolbox: a hammer to help pound out the first draft, a chisel to pare it down and a measuring tape to contain it. But this new tool at the bottom glimmers. Where did it come from?
Humanity – had this word ever been taught to me as an essential of good writing? Not that I can recall. And yet it rings so true as something to seek.
Soon, a parallel between the writing life and the life of faith comes to mind. If incorporating humanity into written communication creates a more effective message, it makes sense that it should be every bit as essential in living out authentic faith.
It’s not that it’s a new concept but perhaps we too easily forget.
In high school I sang a duet with a friend called, “The Gift of Love,” by Hal Hopson. I hum it now, easily recalling the words from 30 years ago.
“Though I may speak with bravest fire, and have the gift to all inspire, and have not love, my words are vain, as sounding brass, and hopeless gain.”
Hopson had been inspired by 1 Corinthians 13, which begins, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Other contemporary examples also abound, including those demonstrated by our pope, who seems so willing to stoop before the ordinary, the suffering and the poor – whether in spirit or materially – to tend to the most immediate need. So often, it’s simply love.
This is the crux of the wisdom contained in the fortune cookie – an imperative to not neglect humanity in our everyday connections. It begins by meeting people where they are at, not where we think they ought to be.
Writings that do not in some way touch the interior are incomplete; a mannequin of sorts – all shell, no heart.
This is not new and yet I read it as if anew. It wasn’t until my daughter handed me the little slip of the paper and said, “It’s yours,” that I’d been struck with how absolutely essential humanity is for wholeness in every realm.
If we fail to honor the humanity in the humans we are trying to reach, it’s all emptiness.
The next day, I can’t find the tiny note. I search through the pockets of my jeans at the top of my hamper, glad for once I’ve been late with the laundry. Locating the “fortune,” I breathe a sigh of relief.
I want to keep it to remember this simple but important truth: that if I fail to notice the soul of the person next to me, my actions and words are useless clanging.
I tape it to a prominent spot that will be hard to avoid, grateful for the words of wisdom slipped in between Styrofoam tubs of garlic green beans and chicken fried rice.