How to Become First-Rate

Arthur Rubinstein begins his lengthy autobiography by paying tribute to his aunt Salomea Meyer. Mrs. Rubinstein had given birth to six children. It would be eight years before she would conceive her seventh. Given her situation, it may be understandable that she was reluctant to give birth to a seventh child. The distinguished pianist writes: “I was utterly unwanted by my parents, and if it hadn’t been for the enthusiastic persuasion of my aunt Salomea Meyer, my intrusion into this valley of suffering might have been prevented”.

Rubinstein went on to become a first-rate pianist, one of the most celebrated of his century. By contrast, his aunt remains in eyes of the modern world as invisible as a guardian angel This is a rich and dramatic irony, Rubinstein played the piano, his aunt saved his life. Which was more important? To the secular mind, Rubinstein’s life was first-rate. He dazzled the music world with his astonishing talent, spoke eight languages, hobnobbed with celebrities, and was admired by millions. Yet, none of this would have transpired except for the persuasive influence of his life-saving aunt. There can be life without music; but there cannot be music without life.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the distinguished British journalist, talks about what he calls “second-rate pursuits,”which include “becoming a millionaire or a Prime Minister, . . .seducing beautiful women, flying through the atmosphere, or landing on the moon”. “First-rate pursuits,” he adds, involve “trying to understand what life is about and trying to convey that understanding,” We applaud the celebrity and ignore the multitude of nondescript people who are sharing with others, their understanding of life. “The most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of children, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.”

Perhaps society has it backwards. Being first-rate is an encomium that belongs to people who understand the dignity and importance of life and form little communities of love. Let the celebrities, experts, specialists, jet-setters, VIPs, and CEOs have their “second-rate” pursuits. “First-rate” pursuits belong to those humble individuals who live by the Golden Rule, serve God, and love their neighbor. They need neither fame nor publicity. Their reward is not to be found in awards or in trophies but in their joy.

The paradox of the person whose life is “first-rate” is that he does not seek that identification. It is a consequence of living his life authentically, which is to say, living a life of love. I am therefore inclined to think that aunt Salomea’ life was “first-rate,” though, no doubt, no such thought ever entered her mind. We can thank her, nonetheless, for the prodigy whose life she saved. We can thank her for having a clear appreciation of the importance of every human life, even those who reside in the womb and are devoid of any social status. We can thank her for convincing her sister, Mrs. Rubinstein that she should act as a mother.

We human beings all have the same Creator and the same nature. No one is self-generated. We all owe our existence to another. Therefore, we should always be attuned to the needs of others. And this is the simple formula for a “first-rate” life.

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is is the author of forty-two books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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