The Common Good
January-February 2003

The Duty of Delight

by Robert Ellsberg | January-February 2003

. . . and other lessons from a life well-lived.

Chuck Matthei was an innovative thinker who helped pioneer community land trusts and other alternative economic models and a longtime friend and supporter of Sojourners. From his earliest activism for civil rights and against the Vietnam War to his final work as founder and director of Equity Trust Inc., Chuck led a life of protest, service, and solution-seeking, fed by a deep understanding of the connections between nonviolence, economics, and justice. Chuck was 54 when he died of pneumonia as a complication of thyroid cancer on Oct. 1, 2002.

After receiving the news that Chuck Matthei—friend, brother, mentor—had returned home to Voluntown, Connecticut, to die, I left a message to see whether I might visit one last time. His sister called and said that Chuck would be delighted to see me. I knew he could not speak. But evidently with the help of his laptop computer he was able to dictate requests. "Bring prints of Fritz Eichenberg for me to look at," he said. "Bring photos of your children—to illustrate the stories you will tell." I promised to come the next day.

I didn't know quite what to expect. I was conducted into his office, where he sat on a wheelchair with the computer poised on his lap. He looked very old and frail. As usual, though, he was able to communicate a lot through his eyes.

I was amazed by how well he could carry on a conversation by typing away on his laptop—almost as fast as he could talk, stopping occasionally to backspace and correct a spelling or reconsider a word or phrase.

I described the book I am working on, The Saints' Guide to Happiness. I am trying to reflect, through the lives of holy people, on what makes for a happy and whole life. He said, "I have a lot of thoughts about this." He began typing, words to this effect:

"Since I got sick, many people have asked whether I am angry, frustrated, bitter. And I say, Never. When people receive the diagnosis of a terminal illness, they are first of all afraid of being alone, and they wonder about how they might have lived differently. But I have never been alone. I have been surrounded by good friends and community, and blessed with meaningful work. I have never had to make decisions on the basis of money or peer pressure. Of course there are things I would do differently. If it were otherwise it would mean that I had not learned from life."

He did have a concern: "There are things I have learned that I wish I could pass on to my nephews and niece. I wouldn't want to tell them what to do with their lives. But there are things I have learned."

By this time theologian and activist Bill Wylie-Kellermann had joined us. Chuck suggested that we just talk as friends—as we always had in the past—and he would chime in. And so we talked. He would type and I, sitting next to him, could read the words off his monitor.

Bill asked him whether he felt "finished" with his work. "Never," Chuck typed. He said it was tempting to be discouraged sometimes. "You know how Dorothy Day wrote in the postscript to The Long Loneliness about how hard it is to remember ‘the duty of delight.' But I have said to friends, as I contemplate the life I've had and the end that is coming, ‘It's not so hard, either, when one has been graced by such good work and good friends.' To me it is the recognition that we are never without a meaningful choice. This is a culture that nearly drowns people with meaningless consumer choices, yet leaves most of them feeling that they are powerless in the most important affairs of life—but that's not true.

"We may not be able to choose the moment of our entry into the world, the circumstances that confront us, the choices available, or the consequences that face us for making those choices. But we can always decide how we will respond. We can keep hold of the only ‘possession' that cannot be taken from us: our dignity, integrity, soul, call-it-what-you-will. That is the decision that defines us, the first important ‘life lesson' we should teach our children. This is the decision I have to make every morning: I can rise and think about what has been done to me, what I have lost...or I can rise and say to myself, ‘Here I am. Let's get moving!'"

I had first heard Chuck speak about this freedom to choose our attitude when I was 18 and a freshman at Harvard; I had written to the Selective Service System telling them that I would refuse to register for the draft. All my life I had been awaiting this fork in the road, inspired by the example of others. But by the time this day came in 1973, the draft was over, most people had moved on, and I found little support or understanding among my friends. I felt terribly alone. Then late one night I came home to find a stranger waiting for me in my dorm room. One of my roommates had let him in. I never really did find out how Chuck had heard about me, but evidently he had hitchhiked across the state to come see me.

I later discovered how characteristic this was of Chuck Matthei. He believed that the kind of struggle I was going through was the most important question anyone could face (not the question of the draft, per se, but whatever occasion causes a young person to ask what life is ultimately about). Like a magnet, he was drawn to people in that situation—not to tell them what to do, but to offer support and his own experience.

With his long beard and balding head, he seemed like a real old guy to me (he was in his mid-20s). He told his own experiences with the draft, how he was arrested and almost died as a result of his noncooperation. He talked about Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Tolstoy, and other heroes.

I took away from my first encounter with Chuck that there wasn't really a right or wrong answer to my dilemma with the draft. But I did have a choice to respond to the big questions of life, and to find my own answers. I ended up registering. But I also ended up dropping out of college the next year and making my way to the Catholic Worker—a community where it no longer seemed strange at all but simply obvious why one should struggle over such questions.

By this time Chuck's mother and sister and some other friends had joined us. From the table that was covered with books and pictures, Chuck asked someone to hand him a copy of The Family of Man, Edward Steichen's classic book of photographs. He paged through until he found his favorite picture: a crowd of African children surrounding an older man who was in the middle of saying something amazing. There was no caption, and at first I was confused. Then I said, "Aha, the story-teller!" Chuck replied, "He is my hero."

We talked about the importance of preserving a memory, a connection with the stories and the wisdom of those who came before us. This was another lesson that Chuck had always imparted, and that he wanted his niece and nephews to understand. I told him I was sure that he had successfully communicated this wisdom to his niece and nephews—and countless other people over his life—even if he never wrote it down.

Eventually it was time for me to leave. I kissed him on the top of his bald head and thanked him for everything. And said goodbye. I walked out in the glow of this sacred time and space. Apparently it was his last good day. His condition deteriorated quickly, and he died four days later.

When I need to be inspired, I will remember him, sitting in his wheel chair, so close to death, typing on his laptop computer: "Here I am! Let's get moving!"

Robert Ellsberg, a former managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper and the editor of Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, was editor-in-chief of Orbis Books when this article appeared.

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