–Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
New Albany, MS – Lately I’ve been reacquainting myself with a writer I have, sadly, ignored for over fifty years. I was first introduced to Charles Dickens by my tenth grade English teacher, Ms. Velma Ruth McDonald. Our assignment was to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and, as was customary back then, write a “book report” analyzing the plot, the historical significance, and the writing style of the author. I don’t remember for sure, but my guess is that I, like most tenth graders, read some of the book, but likely relied heavily on Cliff Notes to write the report and convince Ms.Velma Ruth I had actually read the entire book. I’m sure I pulled it off with great flair, because my classmates were forever teasing me about being Ms. Velma Ruth’s “pet” student. I was pretty accomplished at that sort of thing.
In the ensuing fifty three years, I must confess that about all I remembered about the book was part, and only part, of its evocative opening sentence, and that the book was about the tumultuous events leading to the French Revolution. We all remember that part of the opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” even if we don’t recall its origin, significance or author.
My life would have been greatly enriched had I only taken Mr. Dickens as seriously as I had convinced Ms. Velma Ruth that I did! Having recently spent a fair amount of time with Mr. Dickens, I now rank him among my favorite writers. Charles Dickens is not only a splendid story teller and compelling social critic; his lyrical prose is absolutely amazing.
Dickens’ writing captured his times, the past and the future
No one I’ve ever read captures my emotions like he does. As I read him, I often catch myself saying “Damn, that’s exactly how I feel,” or “I’ve felt that way many times.” Sometimes I have these “eureka” moments that compel me to better understand emotions I have witnessed in others, but not fully understood. His writing has the power to keep me awake at night. I find myself contemplating and repeating his words throughout the day. Needless to say, I am now a convert and great admirer of Charles Dickens’ work!
Look at the entirety of that opening line in A Tale of Two Cities, written in 1859:
“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 the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Captivating – right?
The juxtaposition of phrases like “best and worst” — “wisdom and foolishness” and “hope and despair” are profoundly thought provoking. It is also worthy of note, that Dickens was writing about an era that came almost a hundred years earlier, and could also easily apply to the contemporaneous age in which he was writing. Likewise, today, over one hundred sixty years after Dickens first penned those words, we can easily apply and be challenged by their seductive truths in our own current era. Countless essays could be written about today’s culture using Dickens’ tantalizing opening sentence! The old aphorism “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” seems to certainly apply!
The worst of times for the Navajo Nation
Take, for instance, an obscure story that has recently captured my attention. While the COVID- 19 has reaped havoc all across the globe, it has hit especially hard among Native American tribes. The Navajo Nation alone has become a scorching coronavirus hotspot. It has more diagnosed cases than all but four states in the nation. Yet, in a poignant display of the “worst of times,” the Trump administration delayed 8 billion dollars of congressionally appropriated relief funds set aside for tribal governments. Six weeks needlessly passed and people needlessly died. The federal government acted like Dickens’ coldhearted, miserly character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol and said, “Bah, humbug” to struggling Indian country! And people died!
In one horrific mix-up (I’m being generous by calling it a mix-up, but I don’t know of any hard evidence otherwise) an American Indian Health Agency located in Washington State aggressively lobbied for desperately needed test kits and medical supplies. As famed populist writer, and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Jim Hightower, tells the story: when the federal government shipment finally arrived, it contained no medical supplies or test kits, but rather, zippered body bags and neatly printed tags with specific instructions to “attach to toe.”
To be sure, these are “the worst of times,” a “season of darkness,” a “winter of despair.”
The worst of times can produce humanity’s best effort
On the other hand, the coronavirus pandemic in general, and the crisis in the Navajo Nation in particular, also demonstrates “the best of times,” perhaps like no other circumstances with which I am familiar!
We have seen front-line health care workers performing heroically and volunteering for super-long shifts in horrific, dreadful conditions. Ordinary folks have preformed extraordinarily. Regular citizens have rallied around their communities with countless acts of generosity and kindness. Food banks have sprung up everywhere and community spirit is in full bloom all over.
One incident in particular caught my attention. Writers all around the globe have told and retold this story of big-hearted generosity coming from an unlikely source. Like all stories that illuminate the wisdom of charity, random acts of benevolence, and the universal binding strengths and frailties of mankind, it deserves to be told over and over again.
Some enterprising officials of the Navajo Nation created a Go-Fund-Me site, with the goal of raising two million dollars for the expressed purpose of buying medical supplies, food, and testing kits to ease the suffering of the infected and dying people of their isolated, sprawling rural tribe.
In short order, contributions started pouring in and over three million dollars, mostly in small donations, was quickly raised. The odd fact of the success of this fund raising appeal was that much of the money came from people living in Ireland.
Ireland, of course, has not been immune from the virus itself. In fact, about 1,700 Irish citizens have died of the virus and about 25,000 have been infected. So, what is the reason for this inordinate Irish compassion for a Native American Indian tribe in far away America?
An enduring bond between the Irish and the Choctaw Nation
The answer is to be found in another “best of times, worst of times,” era! It was in the days of the Irish potato famine. An estimated one million Irishman died of starvation and diseases as a result of a potato blight in the 1840s, and another one million were forced to emigrate (including some of my own ancestors).
In the midst of this human suffering and despair, a donation of 170 dollars arrived on the Emerald Isle to help relieve their suffering. The unexpected donation had a huge psychological impact and lifted the spirits of the starving Irish people. The modest amount was not the reason for their celebration; rather, it was the source of the contribution. It had come from an equally impoverished people – the Choctaw Nation of American Indians, four thousand miles away in Oklahoma, many of whom had been forced off their homelands here in Mississippi.
This act of humanitarian empathy in 1847 created a lasting bond between the Native Americans and the Irish people that has endured ever since. One hundred and seventy years later, the Irish people, in great numbers, reciprocated in a loving, selfless way! Dickens would call this “the season of light, the spring of hope.”
Making better times arise from worst times
In a similar, but far more disturbing vein, we have recently seen the “worst of times” in the tragic murder, by callous police officers, of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota! The terror of Mr. Floyd crying out for the comforting love of his mother and then being ignored as he repeatedly cried, “I can’t breathe” is seared into the consciousness of every decent, honorable, God-fearing human. I can’t imagine what phrase Mr. Dickens would craft to describe this horror, but we can all agree on one word; it was reprehensible! “The worst of times,” indeed
George Floyd’s death has become a symbol that might finally force public policymakers all around the world, to address systemic racism. Laws cannot change hearts. But they can help to prevent lynchings and make them a crime. Perhaps more importantly, the horror of Mr. Floyd’s death will force America to finally live up to the promise of its creed that “all men are created equal” in the eyes of the law. It has been “the worst of times” in America when vast segments of the population saw the evil of racism regularly, yet refused to speak.
As we have seen in cities large and small, in urban areas and in rural areas, in America and, indeed, all over the world, people of all races, all ages, and all religions have now come together demanding constructive change. They are silent to Evil no more!
Humanity is no longer silent to the evil of racism, and the senseless violence perpetrated by some folks with badges. If the unleashed voices of the hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who are protesting Mr. Floyd’s death are heard, and if we all engage in a little self-examination of our own attitudes about race, these troubled times will surely become, “the best of times!” But that transformation, that burden, that glorious opportunity is dependent on the reasoned passion of our own outrage. It is “the best of times” when Humanity sees evil, sees injustice, sees racism, and speaks, speaks loudly, speaks forcefully! It is good for mankind to have a justified, righteous temper. Those are “the best of times” and those times don’t come along very often.
As the wordy Mr. Charles Dickens instructs: “Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”
Are we up to the task of turning “the worst of times” into “the best of times?”
I think we are! I pray we are!
More about the Irish: Choctaw Nation bond: https://www.choctawnation.com/news-events/press-media/sculpture-ireland-honors-choctaw-nation
For more by Steve Patterson: Once Upon a Time in America or click his name below feature photo above to see his archive.A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, Choctaw Nation, Covid-19 coronavirus, George Floyd, Irish Potato Famine, Navajo Nation, Northeast MS news