To Preserve A Benevolent Attitude

Verona Wylie Slater - Penn Valley, Pennsylvania
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, June 25, 2010
Verona Wylie Slater
Photo illustration via victoriapeckham via Flickr

In her youth, Verona Wylie Slater’s beliefs were shaped by her father, a Presbyterian minister, and by her brothers, who were writers. As an adult, Slater embraced the traits she wanted to embody as a woman and mother: wisdom, gentleness and bravery.

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My early life was spent in Presbyterian parsonages where I learned a great deal about the “thou shalt nots” of this world. In those days [my father’s] parishioners’ problems were often brought to the minister for settlement. He was supposed to be their spiritual advisor, marriage counselor, economic stabilizer, and psychiatrist. Sometimes, father referred to conferences with his flock, saying he had been wrestling with men’s souls. In these mysterious matches I thought of God as a giant referee who spoke through father.

My brothers and I held long conversations about what might be true or false in Christian teachings. One evening during a thunder storm, my eldest brother was inspired to make an unholy experiment. He stood on a sloping rock, which jutted out into the lake near our summer home. Holding his face upward, he defied the Almighty to strike him with a bolt of lightening. The storm was loud and close. The skies opened with a terrifying flash, but the bolt flew across the dark waters a mile away. We felt relieved, foolish, and very insignificant. I have felt unimportant many times since that night and remembered with a smile a bolt of lightning which scorned the Parson’s children.

It took many years to recover from the idea that God was a figure of personal vengeance. Now I think of God as a spirit of goodness, reflected in sane human beings everywhere. In much the same way I look through the pantry shelves to see what is needed for dinner, I have frequently taken inventory of my thoughts searching for a simple philosophy by which I might live. My philosophy embraces three things I would like to be as a woman: wise, gentle, and brave. To be truly wise would take more than one lifetime, perhaps. But achievable wisdom implies the use and enjoyment of my five senses. I can observe. I can read and gather at least a partial understanding of the world. I can learn by listening to others. I can enjoy music. I can taste what is sweet or bitter. I am warned by the smell of smoke and pleased by the fragrance of flowers. With my fingers I might stroke the silken hair on the head of a child. But these same nerve ends keep my fingers from the fire.

Gentleness is the sort of kindness which accumulates with wisdom. It is the big watchword in my book. It is so easy to become an opinionated monster after 40. With age, I want to preserve a benevolent attitude. Children need tenderness to combat their natural savagery and to comfort them in distress. A soothing manner is an important ingredient in any formula dealing with men. It lightens the tensions that shorten men’s lives. A gentle approach toward other women is a vital necessity if I hope to accomplish anything in group projects and if I wish to have friends.

The real value of gentleness is lost if it is not fortified with bravery. When I am afraid, I am paralyzed and ashamed. Women who show a quiet courage in grief and disaster fill me with admiration. I have to evaluate and control fear. In order to reason clearly, I must be brave. Rather than a monument to my own failings, I want my children to be a credit to the society in which they live. All the wisdom I glean, all the gentleness I can maintain, all the courage I can command, I want for them.

Verona Wylie Slater was a housewife and mother to three children in Penn Valley, Penn. She was the daughter of famed New York minister Edmund Melville Wylie, and the sister of writers Philip and Max Wylie.