The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

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.”

— “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”

—“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”

— “The three hardest things in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, ‘I was wrong.’”

— “The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”

—  “When you run into someone who is disagreeable to others, you may be sure he is uncomfortable with himself. The amount of pain we inflict upon others is directly proportional to the amount we feel within us.”

—  “Men make counterfeit money; in many more cases, money makes counterfeit men.”

— “Superior people are only those who let it be discovered by others; the need to make it evident forfeits the very virtue they aspire to.”

Sydney J. Harris was a superior person. I’m glad I got to know him … in Danville, on the editorial page.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at