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CONTEMPT a 4-letter word? (06/06/2004)
By Janet Lewis Burns

Malice does more damage to the vessel it's in that to the object of contempt.

What a subject, contempt. I didn't seek it out. Actually, I've alighted upon a great deal of witty ditties in a book compiled by Charles Panati. "Words To Live By - the origins of conventional wisdom and commonsense advice" is a wealth of good stuff for a ravenous "word person."

I've shied away from the quip "Familiarity breeds contempt." It never seemed to apply to anything in my life. Traced as far back as 1200 Pope Innocent III (a contemptible title in itself), he adapted the maxim to coin one of his own: "Subservience begets friends; truth, hatred; familiarity, contempt."

I could relate to Panati's description. He writes, "When we're too close to someone, it's easy to let informality degenerate into flippancy, disrespect, or even scorn. Civility and manners can be momentarily forgotten and a friend's feelings deeply hurt. Close friends must be particularly careful not to allow familiarity to breed contempt." It is a dark word, with impassioned implications.

I reason, I don't harbor contempt against anybody or anything! A flare went up as a flashback of one particular Lewiston street, and how I grumble under my breath every time, upon viewing a town disgrace which I have had an ongoing loathing for. The small house and fenced-in backyard are in squalor, junk all around the property, a broken door gaping against the front. No fluttering curtains in shiny windows. Only weeds, no tulips. No whitewashed picket fence.

The elderly, childless couple who called it "HOME" for many years would be heartbroken to see their place in shambles today, and there like a sore thumb on a busy street. I remember fondly how they kept it spotless and tidy, even into old age, with health problems and an inborn pride in their cherished place. People like that are the spirit of a small farm community.

Our small children often visited the kindly gentleman, nearly blind, in his workshop off the bright, sparkling kitchen. A wealth of Lewiston trivia, she engaged me in hospitable conversation on brief intervals from my hectic daycare duties. Even after she lost him, she would scrub her floors on her hands and knees, though she had lower limb amputation due to diabetes. My heart aches when I see what has befallen their modest Lewiston plot, remembering the devotion they had for their community.

I looked up the dictionary meaning and pondered the harsh word. There's no way around it - CONTEMPT is a 4-letter word...the catalyst for HATE, RUDE, and MEAN behavior, fuming RAGE, and consequential HURT.

I find myself countering that it takes far more energy to frown and clench fists than to smile and shake hands. Attempting to smooth out the ruffled feathers I have just exposed, it would be wise to turn to the wisdom of the maxim I opened this article with. There is no excuse for self-destruction.

Excess baggage weighs on me. I return to my most cherished directive - the words of "The Serenity Prayer" gently grace a lacy wall hanging in the entryway of our home. I have a lingering flu of some sort, keeping me away from my two cheery granddaughters. Even the houseplants are drooping. We had to return early from Chetek this weekend. Bookwork is nagging at me, and the weather is turning stormy. No good time for contempt.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." It still works.

There is no means to wander back to what was, except in sentimental reflection. What more can a lifelong resident expect? It's a new game, with an entirely different team of players. Who am I to holler FOUL! 


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