How was your Christmas? Or, perhaps I should ask, how is your Christmas, still? The Christmas marketing season began way back before Thanksgiving this year, and the post-holiday sales and returns are furiously underway even now. By my poor reckoning, that makes fully a quarter of the calendar year - or the fiscal year depending on your point of view - designated in the United States as "the Christmas season."
So, candidly, just that fact alone should quiet the protestors whose feathers get ruffled every time America is referred to as "a Christian nation."
But that's just my take on it. And what do I know? Increasingly, I wonder how to answer that age-old question.
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed with the time-honored words to "know thyself." When I was a kid, that adage was attributed to Socrates. And it's pretty good advice.
Sixteenth century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, carved on a ceiling beam in his study: "What do I know? I suspend judgment." And for his refusal to take a firm stand on what he believed about God's existence, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal held Montaigne in disdain, if not contempt.
Curious as to what might have generated Pascal's negative statements, I was able to study "The Essais of Michel de Montaigne" in 1994 at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington - a town so nice they named it, twice. My whole personal mission was to plumb Montaigne's life, with the help of a fantastic French professor and scholar, Patrick Henry, to find out if Pascal's opinion of the author was valid. What I found out was enough to want to share with Pascal some day.
Montaigne lived in the 1500s, you see, during the time of the French Reformation. Protestantism threatened to overthrow Catholicism, with the Huguenots at one time controlling over 200 towns in the south of France. Bands of what Montaigne called "thugs" literally roamed the countryside, and challenged each individual they met with the question as to which side they supported. A person had to judge quickly which group the thugs supported in order to keep his head, literally.
One of Montaigne's chilling anecdotes described the road from his home to Paris being "...littered with crowns," his euphemism for the heads of unfortunate people who had given their honest answer to the wrong group of thugs.
By the time Pascal came along in the 1600s, things had settled down a little. Pascal, a Catholic, had to choose between supporting either the Jesuits or those who followed the Jansenist practices. Pascal's choice was shaped by an incident from his youth, when his younger sister suffered a broken leg. The Jesuits came to visit the little girl and prayed for her leg to heal. Well, the Jansenists came by and prayed for her leg to heal, too - but while they were there, they also set her leg. So Pascal supported the Jansenists through a series of "provincial letters," written under a pen name to protect his safety.
I suppose it might make a little difference for Pascal to know that Montaigne's "I suspend judgment" statement was most probably an exercise in prudence, to protect his children against the eventuality that the bad guys might invade his house wanting to find evidence of which side he was on.
And I'd like to be a fly on the wall whenever Pascal and Montaigne have that conversation, as I suspect Montaigne might ask why Pascal didn't just come right out and sign his real name to those letters which carried so much weight. After all, Montaigne might argue, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, is it not? If you're going to criticize me, is it not OK for me to ask you a hard question in return?
Man, that'd be a great conversation to hear, I'd think. As Pascal loved philosophical argument, I'd wager that he'd blow Montaigne's doors off. But then Montaigne would most likely retreat to his study and fire off an essay that would perhaps approach Pascal's eloquence and logic.
But, then again, what do I know?
Well, I know that we're about to wrap up the 365 days which comprised 2007. And as we come to the close of yet another calendar year, folks ritually engage in the tradition of making New Year's resolutions with the hope that the New Year will bring with it an opportunity for a fresh, new start.
And I know that 365 days ago I determined, and published in a column for all of you to see, that in 2007 I planned to lose 60 pounds and would attend city council meetings, as well as gatherings of our County Commission and Board of Education.
How'd I do? Thanks for asking.
I lost four pounds. My doctor, the gracious Jim Stillerman, would argue that the scale reads that only because last week, for the first time in 20 years, in the spirit of contributing to the beauty of our neighborhood at Christmas, I actually broke down and raked my front yard. Give me a week and the four pounds will be back, I'm sure.
Alas, I did not cross the threshold to one single meeting that I'd resolved to attend in 2007. I did talk at length to my mayor one day about life in general, and I did visit with the chairman of the county commission when preparing a column on public SPLOST monies being spent for a parking deck on private property. And I enjoyed convivial conversations with BOE member Johnny Smith at several Eastside High football games.
But the fact is, I failed miserably to achieve any of my New Year's Resolutions for 2007, made some 365 days ago this week.
To paraphrase a line from Crosby, Stills & Nash, my relationship with most every New Year's Resolution I've ever made is "I never failed to fail; it was the easiest thing to do."
Therefore, knowing myself much better now than I did a while ago, perhaps the best approach to the New Year for me would be to hereby resolve for 2008 to make no resolutions at all, period. At the very least, I wouldn't be disappointed with my performance some 365 days hence, eh?
But, as Robert Browning once told us, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
My oldest child and her husband are trying to make their little corner of the world a better place with their counseling practice. My middle child is ensconced in Ethiopia, working with the Peace Corps to make that part of the world a better place. My youngest child is a musician, and has produced two CD recordings, one of which is out and one of which will be shortly. One hundred percent of the profits from the first one helps fund a Romanian counseling center which promotes adoption in lieu of abortion; profits from the next CD will go to help Lifewater, International, drill fresh water wells for villages in Kenya.
I'm so thankful the kids took after their mother, and aren't we all? However, what they're doing with their lives places me sharply on the horns of a dilemma.
For me to aspire to do nothing in the way of improving either my corner of the world, or myself, would more or less amount to a shameful affront to my children, would it not?
As a character in the comic strip "B.C." is fond of uttering: "AARRRRGGHH ! ! !"
Therefore, as the 2007 Christmas shopping season winds down, I resolve to follow Socrates' wisdom of the ages and attempt to know myself better. I resolve to follow Pascal's advice to think well, as that is the basis of morality. I resolve to utilize the examples set for me by my own children to help get me up off my lazy behind and try to make myself a little bit better. And I resolve to do all of this before the next 365 days expire.
Only time will tell how this latest rendition of my New Year's Resolutions will turn out. In the spirit of Pascal, I'll wager that I will succeed. But in terms of boldly predicting whether or not that'll happen, I'll defer to the spirit of Montaigne and suspend judgment.
I hope you, and yours, have a happy and prosperous 2008.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.