The Wonder of Dr. Ball

The fact that there is so much to be said about Dr. Ball, and so many people feel that they can comment is worth reflecting upon in itself.  I find myself thinking about the meaning of his life, and the good fortune of having known him. And I want to recognize that, the way you feel when something remarkable happens. But I find that it is not so much sadness, but a moment of awe.

I can’t claim to have had a particular personal relationship with him – I did take his Intro to Religion class, and enjoyed it. I was and am still compelled by the arguments he made about a natural moral order, and worked hard then to find ways to refute them in my essays in order to show him I could think critically. The way we were taught to write at Whitman. I do remember his amazing presence and words of kindness and uncanny wisdom in dorm discussions of love and relationships, and I do definitely remember the powerful authority he offered in more formal campus debates about ethics and morality. And of course I join with the legions of others who felt comforted and reassured by seeing him whiz by on his bike, or holding a tennis racket on the tennis court. But I didn’t have to have known him personally to be affected by all of this.

In fact I wonder if perhaps his life was about this: that any of us could know him, by knowing what he represented in all of us. Perhaps the awe one feels about him is that he made more evident the true wonder that we possess as human beings: the great possible capacity we have for care, and the tremendous responsibility we have to care for one another. In spite of the equally tremendous obstacles preventing us from doing so.

We may marvel over the ephemeral feats of great Olympic champions, or of the technical prowess of musicians, dancers, and artists. And yes, there must be something important about noting the accomplishments of great social leaders who make an impact on the world stage. But that one man in a relatively humble role, place and time can consistently mean what he says and act on it for most likely all of his 96 years in a culture that is increasingly oriented against this, is a feat worth revering with the highest honor.

Yet the wonder of this feat is that it was not done to show us up, earn money, win a contest, or ‘succeed’ in business. Instead it was impossible to know Dr. Ball without also knowing that it is possible for all of us to do what he did:  remain faithful to the same high ethical standards of care for others, to confidently but humbly stand for something and stand up for something, and to engage fully in the actual practice of building and sustaining community. Perhaps much of our lives are spent wondering – denying, preserving, contesting – about this capacity in ourselves. But Dr. Ball instilled this wonder without invoking guilt or anger – in fact, his words and presence often had the opposite effect.  Encounters with him instead tended to raise us up to imagine we were naturally capable of doing what was best, that we were all contending with the same struggle and had the capacity to succeed at it.

I feel fortunate to have seen this wonder with my own eyes, and am grateful to have been tied to an institution and a community that actually recognized and revered him and, in so doing, offered us all an opportunity to gain faith in the prospect of being the best we can be.

Barbara Burton ’82