November 10, 2015
Today Ellen and I are sitting in a cabin in the middle of the woods in a place called Blackwater Falls, West Virginia. The beauty and solitude is indescribable… so I won’t even try. We decided some months ago that we might need a respite after two weddings and a third reception in the Pittsburgh area. We were right. But enough of that for now… on to current events… sort of.
I was probably in elementary school when I had my first social studies class. That being said, I doubt I had any idea what “social” meant and I’m certain the concept of “study” was quite foreign to me. Like all of us, I had my share of classes over the next several years that on occasion morphed from social studies into history classes. I recall little from those events… and that’s the point. It wasn’t until my freshman year in college when I had a history class where I actually was interested in the information being disseminated. My professor was an escapee from the 1960’s who wanted to be a “cool radical.” That being said, I remember the day he changed my perspective on history and how we learn it. He said something like this, “History is written by the elite, intellectuals and the educated. So we only learn about history from their perspective. Commoners and blue collar workers do not write history so we learn about their lives from people who observed them, not from people who lived like them.” I suspect if someone wrote your biography who didn’t know you well, it might sound very different from what you would write, don’t you think?
All of that to say this… I have had a fascination with Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, since I learned about him and it in elementary school. I know I said I didn’t remember anything… well not much. I do remember learning about the installation of a dumb waiter in his home and his various inventions and the unique design of his residence. This past week I went to Monticello for the first time. It was surreal. Not only was I standing in a place that I have thought about for 50 years but it was the actual, doggone it real-life place, not a replica. The steps I climbed were the same steps Thomas Jefferson climbed. The massive clock in the entrance hall was the very clock that he climbed a ladder every day to wind. Even the ladder was there. The wind direction indicator on the front porch was the exact one that he consulted daily to record his fascination with the weather. The bathrooms with ceramic floors and walls, automatic faucets, hand blow dryers, well, okay those are new. But all in all, it was amazing. Well, for me anyway. But it raised the question of how we teach history.
(Just as an aside. You know the picture we always see of Monticello shows it has a dome on the top. Jefferson installed that dome after visiting Italy and became enraptured by the many domes there. The dome at Monticello is locate on the third floor and is only accessible by climbing one of two VERY NARROW AND STEEP stair cases. I asked our guide what the large magnificent opened space was used for in Jefferson’s time… know what she said? Storage! Also a young man who was part of our tour group proposed to his girlfriend while in that “storage” space.)
I know that we need to be age appropriate with children. I understand why we might not tell them about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, look it up.) And I suppose I understand why we might not tell them that he died massively in arrears owing money to numerous lenders. The estimate is well over $100,000; 2 million by today’s standards. And I suppose I “get” why we don’t tell them that all of his possessions including his home and over 140 slaves (remember he was the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence??? It is estimated that he owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime) had to be sold by his family to settle his debts. Can you see why history can be “complicated” at times? And part of the complication is the fact that we create “supermen and superwomen” out of mere mortals. No question that Thomas Jefferson was brilliant. And that he changed history along with our other Founding Fathers. But the truth (I think) is this: He was broken and sinful like the rest of us. And to some degree, enslaved by his culture. I wonder if it’s not more accurate to teach history from the perspective of “amazing men and women, who, in spite of their weaknesses and fallenness were able to perform deeds that altered the course of human history.” If that is true, well… it gives some hope to the rest of us.
I always find it interesting when we hold up Biblical characters as examples of Godly men and women. Read your Bible again! Not all, of course, were dreadful, but one simple example, Jacob, had to be one of the biggest jerks in all of human history! He was a lying, conniving, selfish, coward. The good news is that God used him anyway… again, hope for the rest of us!
We are in the midst of another Presidential election. I know it’s a year off but… What we will likely do in the end is either brainlessly vote for someone from “our party” (How many just pull the “R” for ridiculous or the “D” for dreadful lever) or we will choose the person that we perceive to be the least “broken.” Know what I mean? As the press (I hesitate to call them reporters… they gave up that distinction a long time ago) continues on its forever quest to find “inconsequential” information about the candidates (inconsequential is in the eye of the beholder), we will be deluged with gossip and mudslinging intended to cast a shadow on the character of the Presidential hopefuls. We then will be in the position of determining who is the least broken in our eyes. Of course we don’t use the term “broken” in our culture. We focus on who is the biggest liar. It’s interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson (good or bad) would likely not be elected today. (Of course, given the fact that he has been dead for almost 2 centuries I guess that makes sense.)
I’m going to take a seemingly random route here… stay with me.
Ellen and I have been married for 41 years now. On occasion we have wondered how we have been fortunate enough to pull that off. The truth is our culture and many of our generation have found long lasting marriages to be a challenge. My family, sadly, does not have a great track record for me to draw on. So how is it possible? Let me suggest an illustration that I thought of some time ago.
Imagine, if you will, a dinner plate. Now throw it on the floor and watch it shatter into two pieces with numerous jagged edges. Then take those two pieces and press them together… notice the pieces fit. Now take another plate and break it as well. Then take one piece from the first plate and one piece from the second plate and press them together… they don’t fit. The jagged pieces of “brokenness” grind against one another and resist “fitting.” Now imagine two broken people coming together… both with jagged edges. They grind and cause friction. But thankfully for some, the brokenness is such that over time their edges begin to “wear together” and “erode”; eventually they fit. Not like new of course, but enough that the grinding and the brokenness becomes negligible and therefore managable. Sadly for some folks the brokenness is so great and diverse that it never allows for the “grinding together.” The point here is not that some couples are just so much better at this… the idea is that we are all broken and in some cases our brokenness is unable/unwilling to grind or erode together.
So whether we talk about great men or women of history, or whether we look at our own personal circumstances, we are all broken. If you want to lift someone onto a pedestal… try Jesus. At least He is worthy.