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A life lesson in acceptance of negativity

The mediocre teacher tells.

The good teacher explains.

The superior teacher demonstrates.

The great teacher inspires.

— William Arthur Ward

 I was a freshman at the University of Delaware in 1954, where Bernard Phillips was head of the Philosophy Department. I had no way of knowing how deeply this man would touch and inspire me the rest of my life. That was 63 years ago. He was then a young man dealing with throat cancer, sometimes having to speak through a voice box to be understood.

We kept in touch through the years. He was in his mid-50s and head of the Religion Department at the University of Temple, when he woke in the night hearing the words in his head, “If you are asked to give a talk on philosophy, it would be easy, but if asked to build a house, the most basic thing a man should be able to do, you could not do that.”

He was profoundly affected and motivated by that experience. Phillips did intense research before clearing the land and building what he proudly called his 12-room cabin. It was actually one large room with a sleeping loft, divided into sections designed with items from different Eastern countries where he’d spent time through the years. Phillips was born a Jew, but flirted with Quakerism before becoming a Buddhist. Many say he is responsible for introducing Eastern religions to America.

Despite his hours of research, he hadn’t counted on the river flowing into his little cabin. He spent many hours digging out the mud, and many precious items were ruined.

Nevertheless, inspired by the building experience, Phillips bought and began restoring an old mansion near Philadelphia, offering free room and board to students in exchange for help. Only when it was completed and he was ready to show it was I allowed to see it. Unfortunately, neither he nor his students thought of cleaning the fireplace during the restorative work. In an effort to tidy the area, they’d swept up debris and tossed it in the fireplace.

It was 11 a.m. when he called, inviting me to come for the "unveiling," after which we’d go to dinner and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. I arrived at 5 that afternoon as the fire trucks were pulling out the driveway. The fire had caught in the chimney. It destroyed the third floor, badly burned the second floor, and the first floor was totally water damaged.

As we stood in the doorway together, a young looter passed between us carrying an item from the house. Phillips touched his arm gently and said, “Please leave that. I’ve suffered enough loss today.” He turned to me saying, “Yesterday I gave a lecture on the acceptance of negativity. Today I live that lecture. Let’s go to the festival.”

He borrowed clothes from a neighbor, as the only ones he had were the smoky ones he wore. He lost a wealth of objects he’d collected over the years on his many trips abroad. The only possessions he owned now were water damaged and those in his cabin.

Undaunted, Phillips began remodeling the mansion, this time hiring an Italian stone mason to make small turrets on the building and local craftsmen to help carry out his plans. Unfortunately during the process, Phillips passed on, a result of the cancer he’d had years earlier, but not before he had passed on the precious gift of a vital lesson: The acceptance of negativity.

— Nancy J. Bringhurst is an East Coast transplant fortunate to have been lured to Ashland.