Story: It’s a Sign of Maturity Not To Be Scandalized.

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story: It’s a sign of maturity not to be scandalized.


Here’s the complete quotation from Flannery O’Connor:

“From 15 to 18 is an age at which one is very sensitive to the sins of others, as I know from recollections of myself. At that age you don’t look for what is hidden. It is a sign of maturity not to be scandalized and to try to find explanations in charity.”

–Letter of August 19, 1959

I love the work of Flannery O’Connor. Her fiction is so mind-blowing that I can hardly bear to read it, and I also love her non-fiction. I ‘ve read that collection of letters, The Habit of Being, three times. And here’s my latest Flannery O’Connor quote, from an interview she gave: “I’m interested in the old Adam. He just talks southern because I do.”

I wouldn’t describe it the same way, but that’s what I’m interested, too. The old Adam.

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  • Peninith1

    I would like to take ‘finding explanations in charity’ a little further–how about ‘being sure that charity could give me an explanation’? The difference is subtle, but I ‘dig it.’ Just ACCEPT that there could be a good reason, but don’t feel compelled to ‘make up a charitable explanation’ to cover the shame of it all. You, know that ‘she must have been raised in a barn’ or ‘maybe she comes from a broken home’ type of ‘charity’ is not very nice. Just accept. How easy. How sweet. How peaceful.

  • Beautiful!! And I love your story that explained the concept. I think the older I get, the more I realize how we all have our own stuff. And I know I am kinder to others and myself.

  • Blair424

    This reminds me of a story about Buck O’Neil, the late Negro League baseball player who was a beloved figure in Kansas City. I might have some of the details wrong, but I think I’ve got the basics right. Buck and a friend were at a Royals game when a foul ball went into the stands and a man and a little boy both scrambled for it. When the man got the ball, Buck’s friend was scandalized. He turned to Buck and said, “What a jerk! He should have let the kid have it.” But Buck responded, “He probably has a son, and he’s going to give him the ball when he gets home.” Buck’s friend thought for a moment and then said, “If he has a son, why didn’t he bring him to the game?” Buck just smiled and replied, “Maybe he’s sick today.”

  • maddyd51

    It sure does cut down on drama, too! We have a family member with 5 small kids and often have to remind ourselves that we didn’t get an invite or didn’t hear from them not because of some scandal, but simply because they are busy! But it takes much more self-discipline to avoid the scandal and assume the best.

  • B2the3rd

    I think there are times when being scandalized is the appropriate response, particularly when the charitable answer has been worn threadbare. (A worker who refuses to perform certain tasks “because” comes to mind.) I don’t assume every stranger I meet is a jerk or a deviant, and I think some people rely too heavily on the grace of familiarity to soothe bad behavior. I’m actually more prone to think better of strangers in many instances.

  • Anne Weadon

    How about when you say nothing, but make eye-contact with some other “good person” and roll your eyes at the bad behavior? I try hard not to do that!

  • peninith1

    Here’s advice from a convent I used to visit on retreat: “If another’s fault vex you, uphold your sister in prayer, and yourself practice the opposite virtue.” It takes a moment to wrap your mind around that one. And it answers appropriately to Jung’s statement that what annoys us most in others is seeing our own faults exhibited by them.

  • Susie Suggs

    Agreed. Too often, those who are indignant are using the occasion to self-boost or self-promote. It is a sign of maturity. I was reminded of this recently – racing to get home because I thought I left my stove on. Blew every light, 55mph in a 35mph zone. Then, yesterday, had someone in the next lane, blowing past me and I started to get enraged, but stopped myself and thought – What if this person left their stove on or is rushing to get home to a sick child? Part of growing up, I guess.

  • Michelle Ward

    The simple wisdom of this message is valuable in our ability to embrace calm in our everyday life rather then what can become a habit of petty outrage.

  • Janet Clark

    I enjoyed your story, and found this quote that seemed relevant — and a little humorous, as well.

    “Moral indignation is in most cases two percent moral, forty-eight percent indignation, and fifty percent envy.”

    Vittorio de Sica, 1901-1974

  • Marcia

    I really like these little stories! Keep posting them!

  • Lotuslady

    I love that quote. It will help me have more charity towards my teenagers.

  • Jeanne

    What a lot of people are talking about below, I call simply “giving the benefit of the doubt.” I agree with Peninith1 that we don’t have to make up an explanation, but sometimes that does help. My goal in life is to feel good and peaceful about what I’m thinking, and approaching life with acceptance and curiosity rather than condemnation works great for that. Even with the case of the bomber on the cover of Rolling Stone. Although I think that was probably either a publicity stunt or just plain bad judgement, I didn’t go to outrage. My first thought was, “I wonder where they got that photo, it’s really a flattering shot.” When I found out it was a self-portrait, I was even more intrigued. This is how he saw himself. An attractive person. That is some serious food for thought. Outrage doesn’t provide that.

  • Anne

    Though I see the relevance in O’Connor’s quote regarding how one is less inclined to feed off of scandal as one ages, your story of the papers in the gym seems more of an issue of rule breaking or going against a common, unspoken code of conduct. Blair424 and Susie Suggs’ comments seem to more clearly speak to that concept which leads to the question where is the line between scandal and rule breaking? And, is it something that is unique to each of us?

  • anonymous

    Gretchen, please tell me it’s pure coincidence that you posted this on the day the (second) Anthony Weiner scandal broke. You’re not quietly suggesting we should give him a pass, right?

    • gretchenrubin

      Pure coincidence! The post was up before I heard about it.

      • anonymous

        So glad to hear it. Thanks!

  • Kate

    Love it! I find myself thinking this (not so eloquently as Flannery O’Connor) when it comes to office gossip. It can be entertaining to get involved at first, but then it just becomes exhausting and childish.

  • virginia

    “The ecstasy of sanctimony,” says Philip Roth, is “America’s oldest communal passion [and] historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure.” From The Human Stain

    • gretchenrubin

      What a fantastic phrase.

      • virginia

        I know, right? I’m sure Mr. Roth would be most surprised to find his work cheerfully recited on a blog devoted to happiness! I find his fantastic phrases stay with me. As a writer Roth can be rigorously and unnervingly accurate about human nature, and when my observations confirm his words, I think of the specific phrases again, almost as a kind of recognition.

  • You’ve quoted Therese of Lisieux and now Flannery O’Connor, two of my very favorite women of all time. I think I’m in love with your blog!

    • gretchenrubin

      So happy to hear that!

      • Have you ever read anything of Dorothy Sayers?

        She was a contemporary and friend of Agatha Christie. I’m just beginning to read their fiction, but read a number of essays by Sayers back in college and just after. Sharp as a tack, and something of a cross between Therese, O’Connor, and Dorothy Day (another of my favorite women).

        • gretchenrubin

          I read Gaudy Night but that’s it, so will add to my library list.

  • Hi, we chatted briefly on here, because of a comment I made. They seem to be gone, now, or at least I’m too dim to find them. But in any event, there’s a funny before-and-after that I’d like to briefly relate.

    Before: I had gotten it into my head somewhere, but I am pretty sure not from Flannery O’Connor, that it shows a certain spiritual development to not be so easily scandalized. And I love and admire O’Connor, so naturally upon reading your quotation I enjoyed flattering myself that I am as smart as her, or she is was smart as me.

    After: I read your bit here, we chatted a bit, and then whatever I remembered of it would have to hide deep in the folds of my gray matter, because it would be quickly crowded out otherwise, with all the nonsense I have to think about every day. So I started reading The Habit of Being, and while not consciously motivated by your quotation above, it must have been hiding in one of those folds, and in any event, I have started reading The Habit of Being. I love the easy intermingling of the mundane and the trivial with the lofty and the profound. Her letters show the sort of imagination that is at the root of her stories, and I believe also of her religious faith.

    God grant us all such imagination and such faith.

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