Antidote for War

Ben Lucien Burman - New York, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, February 5, 2010
Ben Lucien Burman
Photo illustration by Andy Langager via Flickr

In his long life as a journalist and bestselling author, Ben Lucien Burman came to three beliefs: be kind, be artistic, and be funny. If we could simply accomplish those, Burman says we would be happier, more humble, and more peaceful.

Age Group: 50 - 65
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I became a philosopher early. I had to become a philosopher. I was rather badly wounded in the First World War at Soissons, France, when I was twenty-two, and as a result, I was flat on my back for a long time. It was either get a philosophy, or crack up. My code of living is simple. It consists of three parts: 1) never be cruel; 2) always be artistic; 3) never lose your sense of humor.

Number one, I don’t believe, requires much explanation. “Never be cruel” means, of course, always be kind. I believe that kindness is the natural human instinct, not cruelty. I have no illusions about humanity. I know its faults, its frequent blindness, its capacity for making terrible mistakes. But my work as a writer takes me among all kinds of men and women, often the very rough and the very poor. Everywhere, I have found generosity and nobility—men who would have gladly given their lives for me, because I had done them some slight kindness. The vast majority of human beings will do the basically good thing if they are given half a chance.

By the second point in my code, “always be artistic,” I mean that whatever I do, I try to do with as much grace as possible. If I write a book, I want to make it as beautiful as I can. If I were a shoemaker, I would want to make shoes the same way, as perfect as possible. In our madly commercialized and mechanized world, we have lost our sense of the beautiful. I believe we need beauty in our lives just as much as we need food on our dining room tables. A world where beauty flourishes is a happy world, a world at peace.

The third part of my code, as I said earlier, is “never lose your sense of humor.” I don’t like pomposity; I don’t like stuffed shirts. I’m glad I was born in a small town. It’s a wonderful antidote for smugness.

I remember years ago when I had a little success in New York with one of my first novels, there was the usual round of autograph parties and literary lunches, and I was feeling rather pleased with myself. About this time, I happened to go back to my hometown in Kentucky, and I saw an old fellow I’d known as a boy standing on the street corner. He looked me up and down a long time and remarked lazily, “How are yah, Benny? You been away a while, ain’t yah? Yah still teachin’ school?” That reduced life to its proper proportions.

I was over in Germany not long ago in the ruins of Berlin, and a reporter asked me to give his paper a thought for the day. That was a bit of an order for me, who had been in two wars against the Germans and had very definite physical souvenirs from both. I reflected on what I could tell the Germans under these circumstances, and then I wrote, “When all the peoples of the world remember to laugh, particularly at themselves, there will be no more dictators and no more wars.”

Ben Lucien Burman was an American author and journalist born in Covington, Kentucky, and educated at Harvard University. Burman wrote twenty-two books, including the bestselling Catfish Bend series about life in a fictitious Mississippi River town. Several of his books became movies, which included Steamboat Round the Bend, starring Will Rogers. Burman died from a stroke in 1984 at the age of eighty-eight.