The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

Local News

July 7, 2013

Harris packed wisdom into few words

Sifting through some old papers recently, I found a 1970s Commercial-News column by Sydney J. Harris. The Commercial-News ran his syndicated weekday “Strictly Personal” pieces for years. I always read them.

Harris (1917-86) was a Chicago institution. His column in The Chicago Daily News began in 1944. When that paper folded, he moved to The Chicago Sun-Times. The column appeared in hundreds of papers, including the Commercial-News.

Harris’ specialty was the short, philosophical essay that he’d often tie to a personal encounter. When that well ran dry, he shifted to “thoughts at large” mode: random musings with no connective tissue.

One of his more famous essays was titled “A Jerk.” In it, his young daughter asked him what a “jerk” was. His response: “A jerk isn’t a very nice person.”

That got him thinking. A true jerk, Harris wrote, lacks insight. He may be clever, he may be smart, he may have a big job and a great education, but he is incapable of seeing himself as others see him.

“He has no grace, he is tactless without meaning to be, he is a bore even to his best friends, he is an egotist without charm,” he wrote. “All of us are egotists to some extent, but most of us — unlike the jerk — are perfectly and horribly aware of it when we make asses of ourselves. The jerk never knows.”

These days, I rarely find a columnist who can pack so much wisdom into so few words.

Harris also was known for aphorisms — short statements of principle and keen observations that could kick like a mule. A few examples:

— “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”

— “The art of living consists in knowing which impulses to obey and which ones must be made to obey.”

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