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Free Hand and Imperfect Heroes

Jun 30, 2021 6:57:07 AM / by Tim McCarthy

A dear friend and wonderful private blogger, Carll Tucker, wrote me after reading last month’s newsletter to ask what Father Norm Smith, one of those I admired, meant by giving without intensity or judgment.


When we started the foundation in 1997, our name was “Free Hand” to reflect Father Norm’s philosophy: “if you can’t give with a free hand, don’t bother giving”. It made so much sense to Alice and me since there seemed so much undue self-righteousness among many of our volunteer friends. Father Norm had broken the habits I’d formed in my approach to philanthropy:

  • The poor need me.
  • I am a noble guy by giving to those less fortunate.
  • There needs to be an ROI on my investment in them…damn it.

One time, when I had apparently gotten too intense about a project we were building in Cleveland’s inner city, Father Norm sent this quote from our favorite contemplative, Thomas Merton:


Do not depend on the hope of results. . . .You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. . . . Gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. . . . In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

Now working fairly efficiently in our philanthropy, I share my fortune keeping only two things in mind:

  1. “They” are my partners and therefore have much to teach me, in turn and
  2. Everyone involved needs humor and joy more than they need my money and coaching.


Another friend, John Huston, wrote after reading last month’s blog that he is ambivalent about heroes. He understands how their imperfections can disappoint.


I share concern about my own heroes’ failures. Colored by a childhood spent with Walt Disney, it took a series of crushing blows (including one involving Father Norm, ironically) to learn that those I admire are not – and need not be – perfect. Americans are well known for both building and bashing heroes.


My Mom’s maternal ancestors recently got a bashing when my sister uncovered a census note that Mom’s grandfather, who ran a small tobacco farm in Maryland in the 1800s owned slaves. Finding a slave-owning ancestor brings racism right to my front door. Until now, I thought of the Wheatley side of Mom’s family as solid role models for my own life.


But judging my great Grandfather’s actions would require an arrogance similar to judging my own work as “heroic”. That is, I would have to believe that I would never have acted as a small farmer acted four generations ago. Further, my slave-owning ancestor’s granddaughter (my Mom) is exactly who taught me to despise exclusion of any form.


Learning of our heroes shocking shortcomings is hard. And it’s made harder by our own self-righteousness and expectations of those we admire.



Tim McCarthy



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Tim McCarthy

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