This column is about selfish regret.
In 1997, we founded C-Fam to lobby U.N. delegations on life issues. One of the first phone calls I made was to a man named George Marlin, who happened to be one of my proudest political votes ever. George lost to Rudy Giuliani on the Conservative Party line for Mayor of New York City in 1993. George was and remains a real man about town, knows literally everybody, and published 13 books. His involvement goes back to working street corners for James Buckley for Senate, also on the Conservative line.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Out of the blue, I called George and asked for his help in putting on a series of natural law conferences at U.N. headquarters in New York. He jumped in with both feet and brought in a bunch of very serious guys, all of whom happily came to speak at the conferences and who became life-long friends. He brought in Robert Royal, Hadley Arkes, Michael Uhlmann, and Michael Novak. My head was spinning. These were luminary public intellectuals, all Catholic, except for Hadley—who, in those days, went around introducing himself as “a Catholic intellectual” even though he was still Jewish.
Forget the conferences (though they were amazing, co-sponsored with significant governments like Italy, Germany, and the Holy See). The wonderful thing that happened was the planting of friendships. Those seeds grew. But for the most part, they did not grow the way they should have. And there’s the regret.
I first felt this pang of regret when we buried Michael Novak in February 2017. The undercroft at the Shrine was packed. Stories swirled around those days—in person and in print—about the profoundly close friendships Michael had with lots of people. Weekends at his house in Lewes, long and personal conversations. And I wondered, why wasn’t I closer to Michael? He could have been, had I only asked. But I didn’t.
Two months later, Kate O’Bierne—of National Review, the Heritage Foundation, Capital Gang, and so much more—died. She was my introduction to so much of Washington and Catholic circles. She lingered for a long time in her hospital room, saying the rosary with her closest friends. Though I was a friend of Kate’s and her husband Jim, I wondered why I wasn’t closer to her.
It was a tough year because, three months after Kate’s passing, Father Arne Panula died. I knew him also. For years, I met with him from time to time—a warm and welcoming man who in the end, seemed to die for years. In his final days, he spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, and he looked like death warmed over, yet he was there. They said we all were welcome to see him on his death bed, which many did and experienced a profound moment with him—including my dear friend Mary Eberstadt, who came away with a book about it. Yet, still, selfish regret. Why didn’t I avail myself more of this good and great man?
For some odd reason, it hit me hardest at the funeral of Jeff Bell in February 2018. Jeff was an old political hand in Washington DC, knocked off a major political figure in New Jersey, almost became a U.S. Senator, a close adviser to Ronald Reagan, author of books, a sagacious man in politics and the faith. All those famous converts—Bork, Novak, Kudlow—started with Jeff and then were finished off by that great priest, Fr. C. John McCloskey. He was a friend, but I should have known him better.
There is Mickie Teetor, someone you have never heard of, but a profoundly influential figure in New York and Virginia Catholic circles, founder of programs and schools going strong to this day. Get this. She introduced Russell Kirk to the woman who became his wife. Her apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York was a home away from revolution for European nobility and commoners running from Soviet occupation. We have known Mickie for years but never close enough, though my wife and I were truly blessed to be with her in her dying hours a few weeks ago, saying the rosary as she struggled for breath.
Last week we buried Mike Uhlmann, one of the great men of Beltway and Catholic intellectual circles. Uhlmann wrote Mexico City Policy when he worked for James Buckley in the Senate. Mike saved the Electoral College when the Democrats wanted to do away with it. Mike wrote Reagan’s famous book about abortion. He wrote the Human Life Amendment. He came to that natural law conference and became my friend. He always called me “kid,” even though we met when I was 41. We lived in the same town for more than a decade, and I only saw him at dinners and conferences. I never sought him out, and I am wracked with selfish regret.
Let me explain selfish regret. I do not think I brought much to these great and holy people. But they were like Christ in the Tabernacle, they were open to all, even someone as lame as me. They were full of wisdom about the ways of the world and about the interior life. And I never sufficiently availed myself of their wisdom and holiness. (Each would scoff at this characterization, by the way.) They were there for so many others who were wiser than me; they were there for me, and I did not avail myself. What a pity for me. They were good friends, but they should have been great and close friends. And so, with their passing, I am left with this selfish regret. What could have been.
The good news for you and me is there are others out there who are just like these folks. I pledge not to make the same mistake. I am going to be a pest. Perhaps this has already been noticed by a few. But I intend to avail myself of the accumulated wisdom and holiness of these people, and I am pledged not to regret “what might have been.”
It is not only those of us in Washington who have such opportunities. Everyone does, no matter where you live. Seek them out, grow in wisdom and virtue, and friendship. And as you yourself grow older, turn your gaze to those younger than you and be a wise man to them. Die in the odor of holiness and great friendship. Seek thou a cloud of witnesses.
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