Mandela and Me

I did not meet Nelson Mandela. Not privately, that is.

However, in 2003 my family, which included my wife and our 19 year old son and 17 year old daughter, traveled to England for a family vacation. A large reason for this particular trip was the opportunity we would all have to hear Nelson Mandela give a speech in London. It was somehow important to me that my children have the opportunity to be in the presence of South Africa’s towering leader and to be able to tell their children one day that they had heard and seen the great man in person. In 2003 Mandela was already 85 years old and I don’t remember anything of what he said. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were also on the program and I don’t recall their remarks either but I do vividly recollect Clinton and Blair on either side of Mandela, steadying him as they all three exited the hall after the speech. It was a beautiful image of respect.

As the world celebrated the life of Mandela last week I caught myself wondering why it had been so important to me that my children see Mandela. I have had the opportunity to meet other politicians and public figures and celebrities of all stripes and I cannot think of any other that I would go to such lengths to have my children hear. My mother-in-law recently remarked how much her own mother, a poor, south Georgia school teacher in the first decades of the 20th century, revered Mahatma Gandhi. Did Gandhi present the same fascination for her that Mandela did for my generation?

Both Gandhi and Mandela were complicated human beings. Certainly there were flaws and imperfections in both, consistent with living long, scrutinized public lives. Last week I read a piece critical of the media’s rush to make a saint of Mandela. I don’t do that. He was neither perfect nor uncontroversial. But for me Nelson Mandela modeled personal sacrifice and rare public reconciliation of an almost unimaginable nature. Mandela was not a saint to me; he was a hero.

A few years back the pastor of my church told the story of taking his young son to the zoo for the first time. As they reached the elephant enclosure they gazed at the great lumbering beasts and he heard his son exclaim “so…there really are elephants!”

I suppose that is why we took our family to London in 2003. I wanted my children to be able to look at the stooping, frail old man as he walked past, supported by a President and a Prime Minister, and say to themselves “so…there really are heroes!”

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Five Christmas Chestnuts from Dickens

Fictional characters have always been powerful vessels within which to carry political, theological and philosophical arguments. The dramatic impact of a well-drawn character takes us places that purely reasoned debate simply cannot. We may not want a chastened Ebenezer Scrooge making modern social welfare policy (nor would we want a defiant John Galt) but Scrooge’s Christmas conversion story annually whispers deep into the psyche of each businessperson.

A Christmas Carol resonates in part because Dickens assumes social virtue that tempers self-interest with generosity. We can acknowledge the superiority of a free market to create wealth and yet we can still retain a healthy fear of the of the unfettered market’s natural disposition toward class inequality, just as we relish the benefit of nuclear power but govern the handling of fissionable material with great care.

For those that are “haves” either by virtue of good fortune or hard work, these five tiny gobbets of Dickens should remind us that the “have nots” do not disappear simply because we are busy increasing wealth. And for those of us who manage teams of colleagues, old Fezziwig’s example is well worth remembering during this season and beyond.

Here are five chestnuts for Christmas:

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Some gentlemen visit Ebenezer Scrooge in hopes that he will make a charitable contribution to benefit the poor at Christmas time:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge.  “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.  Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.  “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. 

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Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former business partner who rues his earthly preoccupation with business and has come to warn Scrooge of the same fate:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

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The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to witness a merry Christmas party put on by Fezziwig, his first employer. As they overhear two apprentices discussing Fezziwig, Scrooge remembers how his old mentor treated his employees with warmth and regard:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

“Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing in particular,” said Scrooge.

“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now! That’s all.”

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Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past overhear a conversation between the young Scrooge and a girl he has loved:

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”

“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”

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The Ghost of Christmas Future reveals to Scrooge two hideous urchins and haunts Scrooge with Scrooge’s own words:

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

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Applications:

“I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now,” Scrooge says. Could you make that statement for yourself this holiday season?

“I should like to be able to say a word or two to _________ just now.”

Holidays are times when professionals are likeliest to accept sentiments of gratitude sincerely and gratefully, without fear of hidden meaning or ulterior motive. Take advantage of that with a co-worker.

Perhaps also make a sacrificial charitable contribution this week (by sacrificial, the contribution should be such that it deprives you of something you would have otherwise purchased for yourself or your family).

Merry Christmas from The Stubborn Glebe!

Welcome to The Stubborn Glebe

For thirty plus years I worked in the technology industry, wrenching shareholder value from the market as a farmer coaxes crops from an unyielding soil. At times that occupation was overwhelming. I forced the flow of all my attention into the narrowest of channels in order to power the insistent waterwheel, unwilling that even a rivulet of mental vitality should escape the banks and nourish the parched fields of undisciplined thought.

At other times, however, I saw more clearly.

Then, I could spot the ironies that build their nests in all organizations, great and small. I noticed connections between a book, or poem, or cultural event and the job I did each day. The compartments separating my life at work and the work of life disappeared for an instant and I became part of something more enduring than the next project or month-end report.

Those moments led to this blog.

The Stubborn Glebe will celebrate work but perhaps not as other blogs do. This space is devoted to marrying our vocational lives to our cultural setting, using those cultural associations to compare and contrast our own professional narratives. Assorted perspectives make us better people, more self-aware and de-commoditized. I also believe they makes us better workers, whether we be professionals, craftsmen, home managers, entrepreneurs, or whatever.

But, what is a “stubborn glebe” anyway? The term most notably appears in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, a sensation when first published in 1751 and still a profound read today. I chose “stubborn glebe” because I am fond of the idea of a work-culture blog being titled by one of the English language’s most widely read poems. It is also fitting. In the professional world language routinely communicates information efficiently but The Stubborn Glebe will admire communicating understanding evocatively.

A “glebe” is an archaic term for a parcel of arable land. Cultivable land represents potential from which work extracts abundance but only stubbornly, through such demanding effort that we are often left too weary for cultural engagement. The glebe is meant to be a suggestive image for those of us who toil whether in home, office, field or factory. It is our patch, our place.

But “glebe” also has a communal suggestion. In medieval times the glebe often specifically described a tract of soil assigned to the parish church and worked by the peasants in rotation to provide income for the local clergy. Workers toiling in the medieval glebe did so in community. In the glebe they labored toward a purpose beyond simply their own physical well-being. It was a corporal toil from which they could impute spiritual meaning.

So each fortnight, and sometimes in-between, The Stubborn Glebe will offer up contributions for a small community of readers who see in their own work the potential for the noble, at least the poetic…or perhaps even the spiritual. Here’s hoping that together we discover those stories that take us from shabby business clichés toward those unnoticed potential metaphors all around us and in doing so, have a little fun as well.

And for those of us enslaved to task-orientation, I will even include a tiny application at the end of each piece.

Welcome to The Stubborn Glebe.

Application:Richard_Bentley_Elegy_header

This week take time to read “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. Slowly. Memorize your favorite line or couplet and say it out loud to yourself during the week. Find it here.