I get some of the most thought provoking questions from the backseat. Vivien, who is a bundle of energy, for those of you who haven’t met her, often does some of her best thinking when she is alone in the backseat of the car. This is her time to stare out the window and enjoy having her thoughts to herself. It no longer surprises me to enjoy a quiet ride with her, punctuated by a single thoughtful question.
Driving home one day she asked, “What is noble?” As I was trying to figure out where a four-year old could have come across the word noble, I started rummaging around in my mind for or a simple explanation to a complicated, nebulous concept.
For most of us, the term nobility evokes an image of the upperclass, just below royalty. We think of people who were lucky enough to be born to wealthy, elite families. That is the most obvious sign of nobility, but there can be more to it; something behind the scenes that we don’t notice at first while we are jealously eyeing their lifestyles.
I got a deeper understanding of what it means to be nobel when I read the biography of Marion Gräfin von Dönhoff. Born a countess in 1909, Dönhoff grew up in a manor with the associated comforts and advantages of her class. Even as a young child, she was aware of the status she and her family enjoyed as well as their duty to look after the people in their area. It seemed the two were one and the same for her. With privilege came responsibility.
Based on these principles, she participated in the resistance against Hitler’s National Socialists including an assassination attempt in 1944. After the war, she became one of the leading German journalists and intellectuals. She worked over 55 years for the Hamburg-based, liberal newspaper Die Zeit, as an editor and later publisher. Among her many virtues, Dönhoff was an incredibly hard worker. Over a span of almost 50 years, there were few weeks when she did not pen a long article in Die Zeit.
Dönhoff helped me to understand what nobility looked like in the past century. But those were very different times. Dönhoff’s generation in Europe lived through two world wars in quick succession that raged through their countries destroying people, families, society – nearly everything that made up their home. This was a generation characterized by its loses. A generation whose experiences wore them to the grit of their most basic selves.
So what does nobility look like today? Is this something we have less of a sense of? Is it something we have lost sight of in our fast-paced and often transient world, characterized by instant gratification? Are we more concerned with moving to the next career step, the next place, the next rung on the ladder? Or do we still have grit?
I think we do. As it so happens, I am related to one of the most noble people I know.
My sister and I grew up in a middle class family. We were provided to all the trappings of our class in the USA, including a college education. That may not seem like an enormous privilege to some, but it is when you think about how most of the world lives, it is.
For the past 20 years my sister has worked in the non-for-profit sector. She has championed various causes from improving education to ending hunger. While the causes she has fought for over the years have differed, the end goal has always remained the same: improving the lives of the the least fortunate in our world. She is unwavering in her pursuit of social justice.
I doubt that she thinks about her work in this way. I think she just follows her heart. It leads her to jobs with long hours and relatively little pay, sometimes with poor resources and demanding colleagues and staff. These conditions never seem to diminish her passion for the work of serving those less fortunate. This is what grit and nobility looks like these days.
Nobility is honoring privilege with service.
Now I have an answer for Vivien, “Aunt Maeghan is noble. She works very hard to help people who are not as lucky as she has been and I admire her endlessly for it.”