Learning How to Sit

Steve Charles—Yesterday I did one of the wisest things I’ve done in a long time.


I missed the chance to actually be a day early on deadline on Wabash Magazine for the first time in 17 years. I came to work in the morning, finished an interview with Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts Director Charlie Blaich, then drove to Indianapolis and learned how to sit. Something my dog Jules mastered long ago.

My wife and I sat with my best friend and his family while his wife had surgery for breast cancer at St. Francis Hospital. Two skilled surgeons and their teams operated for more than four hours, and we just sat there. Huddled with our comfortable chairs arranged in a square, talking about trips we’d taken, laughing at the various challenges we’ve each been facing as we get older (You know you’ve become a senior citizen when your conversations begin with how often you get up in the night to pee), catching up about our kids, anything else that came up.

Nothing, really.

I remember observing such moments as a kid when I accompanied my parents or grandparents to the hospital, or to gatherings after funerals, to sit with their friends. How could they stand to sit for so long?

Didn’t they have anything better to do.

Now I understand that they didn’t; they were already doing the most important thing they could do—sitting.

There’s this scene in the film Lars and the Real Girl, where a painfully shy young man whose mother died giving birth to him has turned away from all relationships and orders an inflatable doll online to be his life partner (I know, I know—but watch this movie some time to see a writer and a director turn something potentially perverse and maudlin into just the opposite). At the end of the movie when the doll is ‘dying’, a group of older women from Lars’ church brings food and stays with him as he takes a break from being at his vinyl beloveds bedside. He sits on the couch in his living room as one of the women knits, another embroiders, another looks up every now and then and smiles. Lars finally asks, “Is there something I should be doing?”

“No dear,” one of the women says. “Just eat.”

“We came over here to sit,” another says.

‘That’s what people do when tragedy strikes,” another says. “They come over and sit.”

“Don’t you feel a little better?” the first woman asks.

Lars looks down at his food, at the small gathering of knitting and embroidering women, considers this, and nods.

Lars has to learn this from women, as I did from my wife. When we first heard about the surgery, CJ said, “I’m going to be there.” I felt the same instinct. But when the day finally arrived, one obstacle after another threw itself at my plans.

Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts Director Charlie Blaich
photo by Kim Johnson

What finally convinced me to go was something Charlie Blaich said when we were talking about the deeper purpose of a liberal arts education, how “Wabash will be doing great work if it can play a role in this process of helping you become a good man, and help you with habits and things to think about that will keep you reflecting upon that process the rest of your life.

“We’re always becoming men—it’s not like you get the stamp of manhood when you graduate.

“A good man tries to do good by the world, to serve others,” Charlie added [excerpts from the interview will be featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine]. “They are loving. They stand humble before the world and hope to have a positive influence, but don’t claim things too overtly for themselves.”

As I transcribed Charlie’s words, I knew that on this particular day, being a good man for me meant setting aside my anxiety about online magazine and blog deadlines and concerns about my viability as an employee here, driving to Indy, and doing nothing.

Even when I had no power to change the outcome of the surgery and or help in any material way.

Any doubts I had about this truth were put to rest soon after we’d arrived, when my friend thanked me for showing up. I dismissed it matter of factly: “Where else would we be?” Even as I remembered how close I’d been to not coming at all.

“Still,” he said, “I really appreciate it. The little community and all, just sitting. People used to do this all the time for each other. Not so much anymore.”

Yet in the waiting room there were several huddles like ours: People sitting—some talking, some silent, all these prayers in the flesh for someone in an operating room just down the hall.

After the surgery and the doctor’s report CJ and I were trudging up to my friend’s wife’s room with her sister, Lisa, when a volunteer said, ‘You’re all immediate family of the patient, right?”

“Yes,” I answered without thinking.

“It’s a new policy, you know. Immediate family only,” she insisted, looking quizzically at me, then Lisa, who nodded. When we got on the elevator Lisa said, “Well, you’ve been part of our lives long enough—you might as well be family.”

The most tangible reward of sitting is getting to see the person you’ve been thinking about all that time after the operation—she’s alive, awake, safe. At least one part of her ordeal is ended. We walked in with about 12 others into the room, each of us wearing our pink visitor sticker (So much for another rule: “Only two allowed in the room at a time”) She smiled for a second when her youngest son Luke told her that he had done the laundry for her that day. I looked around the room at this family doing the most mundane thing families do at such times and to be in the middle of it all felt miraculous.

I was remembering that scene this morning when I realized that CJ and I really had been the only “non-immediate family” there that moment. The family could easily have asked us to wait outside and we’d have understood; we had no ‘right’ to be there. But gathered up in this moment of grace, trust, and gratitude, there we were. And it finally made sense—Where else could I be?

This morning it’s time to get back to work, and later today or tomorrow (depending on when the print copies arrive) I’ll be posting the Winter 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine. I’m proud of the writing and thought that seniors Ian Grant and Riley Floyd put into this; the work that Tim Sipe ’78, Karen Handley, Howard Hewitt, Pat White, Ethan Hollander, Christie Byun, Pete Prengaman ’98, Tom Runge, Greg Castanias, Beth Swift, and David Phillips contributed; the photography of Kim Johnson, Quentin Dodd ’94, Jim Amidon ’87 and others that so enhances this issue. I’m lucky to have had such creative, talented, dedicated collaborators on this project. I’m looking forward to telling you about that work. In some way, it’s about unexpected connections we have to each other, present and past, and it’s a little risky in its own way. Not too far off from yesterday’s lesson.

We mean more to each other than we ever dare say. But if getting older brings any wisdom, it’s that we’d best find a way to say it once in a while. If not in words, then by doing nothing, with those we care most about. Maybe we should add to the Wabash curriculum an essential lesson for a liberally educated person of any age: learning how to sit.

Entrepreneur Hao Liu ’11 “Booming”

Hao Liu ’11 in front of Kane House on the Wabash campus, 2010

Steve Charles—I wasn’t surprised to read in the current Chronicle of Higher Education about Hao Liu ’11 and the SIE International Summer School program. He co-founded the school when he was a sophomore at Wabash, we featured him in the Spring 2011 issue of Wabash Magazine, Wabash professors have traveled to Shanghai to teach in SIE, and retiring Professor Melissa Butler H’85 has been named the first dean of the program.

I also knew that Hao’s was the first such program in China, and was doing very well.

But I had no idea how well!

The Chronicle calls SIE the first of a “booming enterprise.

“SIE’s success has spawned a slew of competitors,” Chronicle reporters Beth McMurtrie and Lara Farrar write. “New ones are popping up seemingly on a monthly basis.”

And it all started here at Wabash when Hao “realized that Chinese students had little opportunity to take classes for credit at home during the summer, unlike his American counterparts.”

And another of the programs—Summer China Program—was co-founded by Hao’s friend and Wabash alum, Xianwei (Victor) Meng ’10.

In our interview with Hao in the Spring WM, the Wabash philosophy major mathematics minor talked about starting SIE, the differences between doing business in China and the U.S., and the formative two years he spent between his high school and Wabash exploring the business world.

But one part that interview which didn’t make the final feature makes a lot of sense now. I’d asked Hao what first interested him in coming to the U.S. for college:

“When I was a boy, I was not particularly interested in coming to America, though I was constantly influenced by American popular culture, especially music and movies,” he said. “Then in high school I read a book called Harvard Girl by Liu Yiting. It introduced me to American college life and I found it fascinating. I started to do research about how to apply to American colleges.

“I like the spirit of freedom prevailing in the United States, and American entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Peter Thiel were my idols. I became more and more interested in having the education which led to the success of those entrepreneurs.”

So Hao Liu came to Wabash.

Read the Chronicle article here, and our 2011 interview here.