“There is no such thing as a dumb question,” my favorite professor, Peter Kreeft, often told his students. With him, you felt that you could explore the unexplorable. It’s the reason that one day I asked him the question that had been nagging at me for a long time, but that I had never dared to ask: “Why can’t there be sex in heaven?”
My girlfriend blushed, my classmates laughed, and I think that even Peter Kreeft said it was a silly question. But it was okay: I trusted him. He made me feel safe, because no matter how hard or “silly” the question, I knew he would say something good and wise. Better yet, if he didn’t know, he would say, “That’s a very good question. I don’t know.” And he would explore with you, wonder with you—or tell a joke and distract you. He was like a child, and he was old—all at the same time.
And when I think about the type of man I want to be remembered as, I often think of Peter Kreeft.
On my last day of class with him, with my fiancée by my side, I asked him what marriage advice he would give us. He didn’t take long to answer: “Have pillow fights,” he smiled mischievously. But he was serious—and it was a great point.
“The world is divided into two kinds of people,” he said another day. “Fools who think they’re wise and wise people who think they’re fools.” He was always talking about how truly wise people know that they don’t know—it’s fools who think they know everything.
He talked about the temptation to “love things and use people” instead of using things and loving people. He told us to “put first things first and second things second.” He loved his God, his wife, children, grandchildren, the Red Sox, and his students. And that’s just how he wanted things to be.
One time, a few friends and I traveled to his hometown of Boston to visit him. He told us to meet him at 12:30 in the afternoon at the church on campus. When we arrived, he was still in the church. Looking inside, I saw him towards the front, his head bowed in deep prayer. Every day he did this at noon: not because anyone made him do it, but because he wanted to. This is who he is when no one is looking, I thought. This is where he gets his joy and wisdom and love. When he emerged from prayer, he greeted us with his wide grin and twinkling eyes and joyful personality.
And I told myself: This is the kind of man I want to be: joyful, humble, wise.
To get there, it means doing “small things with great love,” as a quote attributed (wrongly) to Mother Theresa puts it. It means being patient with and attentive to my boys. It means admitting to my wife and kids and friends and co-workers when I’m wrong, and always remembering that the things I don’t know are greater than the things I do know.
It means washing the dishes with love, mowing the lawn with cheer, and taking the trash out with gratitude for another day. “When every little thing becomes perhaps the last, every little thing becomes a big thing,” wrote a younger Peter Kreeft in his diary, after learning that his five-year-old daughter had a brain tumor. Lesson: hold close the ones you love and drink the last drop out of each moment.
When I’m old, I don’t want my personality to creak grumpily (I think of Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace). I want what white hair I do have to symbolize years of hard-won wisdom (I think of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings—his wizened hair and flowing beard) and my eyes to reflect not a lifetime of weariness, but decades of quiet joy and kindness. I want people to remember me as a man who listened kindly when you spoke, spoke humbly when necessary, and always—always—walked with you, explored with you, joked with you, cried with you.
I’m not there yet, but I know the way: “small things with great love.” And hit those knees in prayer.