The opening line from Dickens A Tale of Two Cities is usually quoted only in partyou’ll recognize it, but I’ll include the rest of the sentence; and he did write it all as a single opening sentence:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way, in short it was an age so like the present age that some of its noisiest authorities insisted, for good or evil, on its being received in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Dickens wrote this famous sentence 144 years ago, and what he said in 1859 can be said with the same truth today as we look back to the past year and as we look forward to the new yearthe best of times, the worst of times…the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness…
Charles Dickens wrote the opening line in that famous novel the same year that Charles Darwin decided to publish his findings about the origin of species, including the human raceit was a turning point, the importance of which he could hardly be foreseen.
Here in our own country at that time the vile institution of slavery was in still in full bloom, though the voices raised against it were getting louder and louder, and the tall man from the little log cabin was working to become our 16th president to take our nation through what was certainly to be the worst of times.
Poem: Fire-logs, by Carl Sandburg
Nancy Hanks dreams by the fire
Dreams, and the logs sputter,
And the yellow tongues climb.
Red lines lick their way in flickers.
Oh, sputter logs,
Oh dream Nancy.
Time now for a beautiful child.
Time now for a tall man to come.
Following the devastation of the Civil War we entered a time of scientific advancement that led, eventually, to the cotton gin, the automobile, airplane, electricity, telephone, radio, televisionadvancements in medicine that led to the heart transplant and then other organ transplants, to penicillin and antibiotics…then it was on to the computer and the internet; to email…to computer games…things which have given us the best of times…and in some strange twists of fate have led to the worst of times.
‘…an age of wisdom an age of foolishness…’
We look at our collective lives and ask if we are building a sustainable, equitable, just society. Revelations of the shenanigans at Enron, WorldCom and the accounting firms that helped them juggle the books reveal some things about the worst of times hidden under what appeared the best of times.
We look at our foreign policies, the way we relate to the rest of the world and the way we are perceived by the rest of the world, and we fear the flip from best to worst of times…from superpower to super menace.
We look at the role of religion in American life and we see the best of timesthe most religiously diverse nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth; increased respect and understanding, tolerance and sensitivity to differences.
And we see the worst of timesthe scandal that wracked the Catholic Church, and the insidious encroachment of religion into politics and science with restrictions on stem cell research that promises hope for millions who suffer from Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, diabetes and spinal cord injuries…the best of times in terms of hope turned into the worst of times in terms of religious influence on politicians who worry about the huge voting blocks more than they care about making science work toward cures.
The irony in this is the picture of the God they paint sitting on a throne looking down to see how we postpone the work and prolong the suffering in His name.
Dickens words ring true–the best and the worst of times– an age so like the present age.
At this turning of the year we look at our collective lives and we look at our own individual lives, and we ask what we ought to do to make them better: we make resolutions.
I don’t usually stay up to watch the Tonight Show, but New Year’s Eve is an exception. At quarter of twelve Jay Leno said, “Well, you have fifteen minutes left to keep the new year’s resolutions you made last year at this time.”
I asked several folks if they were making new year’s resolutions and was a little surprised to hear that they were, though some said they don’t do resolutions for the year ahead, but for ‘one day at a time.’ It comes to the same thing.
The most popular resolution, of course, is ‘diet and exercise.’
In high school I had a biology teacher who used to ask, “Do you eat to live, or do you live to eat?”
She never mentioned that she got that line from Socrates, who is quoted as having said, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”
I’m surprised that Socrates made a moral judgment about eating and drinkingwhich is why some of us who have extra pounds feel at least a tinge of guilt.
There’s a ten-commandments aspect to the dieting resolution: Thou shalt not be overweight! But for most of us it has more to do with health, which is why we talk about diet and exercise as one thing.
Lots of other resolutions are made at the turning of the year.
We make resolutions about changes in our life stylespending more time with family and friends, keeping the stress level down and living a life more conducive to good mental healthresolutions about finding inner peace, reducing stress, living a better balanced life.
I have a friend who has been talking for years about being on timehe’s consistently late for meetings, but he hates it when other people are late for appointments with him.
One person told me that his resolution this year is to be more kind, which reminded me of the line from the Wordsworth poem that refers to ‘that best portion of a good man’s life, the thousand little unremembered acts of kindness and of love.’
Another talked about being less judgmental and she explained how she makes quick, negative judgments about people she doesn’t really know.
Another talked about her use of curse words, as she put it. She said, “I made the same damned resolution last year…” (Just kidding.)
Another talked about his cynicism, and he said he was making a resolution to work on that, and he explained that he found himself not believing anybody about anything important.
I was a little surprised at the details of the resolutions people told me they were making. They say ‘the devil is in the details.’ They also say that God is in the details. The gods and devils wage this eternal, internal battle. Making resolutions is our way of defeating the little devils–God is seen as the selfcontrol we’re after.
The word resolution is interesting. It has to do with a course of action, a sense of determination to do something, to solve a problem.
What is the big problem we all face, the problem we need to solve, and to re-solve again and again?
The philosophers and theologians dig into it. They begin with the notion that life is the problem–what to think or believe; how to live. What’s right, what wrong? What’s always right, what’s always wrong?
In addition to his assertion about those who live to eat versus those who eat to live, Socrates said, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” Then he added, “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”
While philosophers like Socrates talk about good and bad men, theologians talk about good and bad ideas of God…right and wrong thinking about God, or the gods.
Theologians ask whether the world God created could have been made better than it was; if so, why didn’t God do it better? Is it because God isn’t powerful enough? Is it because God isn’t good enough?
Some theologians assert that God could have made the world better but decided not to do so. Being omniscient He knew that human history would be filled with unremitting tragedy, but this was part of the divine plan.
We humans are prone to speculation about God, the gods, good and evil. Truth be told, we think about it more than we realize. We’re always making judgments about others and about ourselvesprobably more than we’re aware of.
Let’s take another look at the list of things that have been introduced into the world since 1859, when Dickens wrote the famous line to open A Tale of Two Cities, and as I list them, think about resolutions we might make, individually or collectively, about each:
…the automobile, airplane, electricity, telephone–including voice mail and answering machines, and the increasingly popular cell phone; the television, the computer–including the internet, email and computer games.
We could drive less, and most of us could slow down; we could stop for yellow lights rather than hitting the gas; we could stay back and not drive so close to the car in front of us, and we could move to the left at an intersection so cars could pass on the right, since they don’t have to wait for the light; we could be more courteous and less aggressive.
Socrates didn’t have to deal with other drivers. He could make pronouncements about eating and drinking, he could talk about knowledge being the only true good, and ignorance being the basic evil. But if he were alive today I think he would have had something to say about drivers, and I think I know what he would have said about our driving habits?
Of course he would have said something about the vehicle we choose to drive, if we have a choice. He would have said something about gas mileage; he would have said something about the way auto makers thumbed their collective noises at the gas mileage restrictions on passenger cars by creating the S.U.V. and calling it a truck to get around the gas mileage limits.
Here I think Socrates would have referred to the Greek story of Narcissus, from which we get the term ‘narcissism,’ the lack of concern about others, being wrapped up in oneselfan arrested development stuck in an infantile stage of development.
Socrates was forced to drink the hemlock because he suggested that we should be free to say what we think.
Maybe we should ask what commandments Moses might have added if he lived in our time. Moses might have had something to say about the cell phone; he would have carved something into those stones about the appropriate use of voice mail and answering machines.
Look again at the book of Leviticus where he would have said, “Thou shalt not talk on the cell phone on the commuter train, except in emergency, and if such an emergency happenssuch as an oxen knocking the cars off the track, then thou shalt use thy phone, but if it is not an emergency, thou shalt leave thy seat next to napping neighbors and walk to the exit area near the door and speak softly and briefly.”
“Thou shalt not use the call phone at Stop & Shop, going up and down the aisles and talking loudly, seeking help to choose which bananas to buy; thou shalt not use thy cell phone while waiting in line at said supermarket, or at thy bank, or post office or at Blockbusters. When thy usest thy cell phone in the automobile thou shalt be parked, not maneuvering through traffic to beat the light before it goes from yellow to red.”
Moses would have said something about speaking slowly when leaving a number on voice mail. In a remake of The Ten Commandments we’d see Charlton Heston leaving a voice mail message to the Pharaoh saying, slowly, “This is Moses. M-O-S-E-S. My number is 203-227-7205; that’s 203-227-7205.”
The devil is in the details. It’s called etiquettethe social norms by which we live.
Moses would have said something to say about coveting thy neighbor’s big house with the tennis courts, swimming pool and six-car garage…but come to think of it, he did include that one in the original ten.
The devil is in the details. These are some of the things about which we might consider making resolutions to fit the time in which we live.
Confucius put it nicely: “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.” Analects 1:8
Closing Reading, by e e cummings
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weasel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into what
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down