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A little magnanimity, please

My wife tells of a remarkable hostess she knew in Paris who entertained with abundant hospitality and grace. Guests familiar and strange, expected and unforeseen, from an Austrian embassy ball and from servants' quarters - all were embraced by a heart boundlessly welcoming. Food, rest, refreshment, and unburdening humor were imparted with amplitude.

This magnanimous hostess was an African of no means who lived (and entertained successfully) in a room roughly the dimensions of a good-sized American closet.

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Magnanimity. It means largeness of spirit and suggests generosity, nobility, and a forgiveness of the small-minded and shortsighted. The world of affairs could use more of it.

El Salvador. Northern Ireland. Palestine. Which of the world's fratricidal feuds is not worsened by a vengeful, spiritually stingy mentality? And the domestic scene is not immune from this ugly mentality either.

Politicians are often blamed. Their stereotype is petty and tunnel-visioned. And all too often their rare efforts at magnanimity seem dishearteningly rhetorical, self-righteous, and token. The Lincolnesque bigness and transcendent forbearance which help define statesmanship are indeed elusive among our politicos, and instances of quiet nobility and bold self-sacrifice are scarce.

Yet the meagerness of spirit which pollutes our civic and diplomatic atmosphere cannot be entirely fobbed off by scapegoating our political leaders. They respond to a climate. Our elected officials have no monopoly on such classic fallacies as the following: that material abundance is a prerequisite to meaningful generosity; that one's own security and well-being may be safely enhanced at the expense of another's festering sense of oppression; that liberality of spirit is identical with wasteful, naive inefficacy (or worse); that physical force holds humanitarian duty hostage and can never be subordinated to it; and that one's enemies are monolithically incapable of good faith.

On the fortunate other hand, even as all of us to some degree indulge and foster these beliefs, so every one of us - every citizen and every leader - has the ability in a comparable degree to outgrow them by being magnanimous.

It is no excuse that the season is too lean and the hazards too great to exercise our capacity for taking the first step toward reconciliation. It is precisely hard, dangerous times which cry out most for a magnanimity that discerns both the demand for sacrifice and the worthiness of the end being furthered; both the risk of offering one's hand and the greater risk of withholding it in fear or pride.

The point here is not to make a sweeping sermonette but to offer a political reality: national prosperity and security flow from intellectual, moral, and spiritual - not military and industrial - largeness and firmness. History is forever teaching us this. Magnanimity will thus be found indispensable to economic abundance and peace, no mere cosmetic nicety. And these days, the opportunities for testing the feasibility, safety, and fairness of this golden quality are rife.

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Magnanimity is not the whole game. There are also such critically needed values as rationality, humility, alertness, steadfastness, a sense of proportion and impartiality, and - yes - even outrage. And admittedly the need for magnanimity as between disputants may well be far from equal. (South Africa comes to mind.) But it is at least submitted that all of us - Brezhnev, Reagan, Begin, Arafat, and the rest - could take a few useful hints from the magnanimous African hostess of my wife's grateful acquaintance.

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