A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
THERE ARE STORIES PASSED DOWN about my grandfather Clarence, who died several years before I was born, to the effect that he could take quickly to the stern edge of his character and at times be brusque, impatient and demanding. While he was an industrious and productive Virginia farmer who certainly knew the meaning of hard work, with prosperous farmlands and fruit orchards to show for it, he now and again failed to notice that others worked equally as hard as he, and for far lower wages. One such person was a long-time faithful farmhand by the name of Elijah, who by this time had become an old man, as had my grandfather.
As always, the toil fell to Elijah to till the ground. With his hand faithfully to the plow one sultry summer afternoon, he struggled to keep his usual pace behind the mule as from a distance my grandfather assumed the inherited posture of one whose job it was to oversee. It was not uncommon that Papa, as his children affectionately called him, might unconsciously overlook the fact that the sweltering humidity had drawn beads of perspiration down Elijah’s dark brown cheeks. For a split instant as the mule turned in its path, the two old men stood side by side at the corner of the field.
“Mr. Davisson, would you mind takin’ hold of the plow whilst I go relieve myself?”
It not only had been ages since Clarence had taken hold of anyone’s plow including his own, but for many years Elijah had accumulated a debt of more than just a few greenbacks that he still owed my grandfather. Circumstances being what they were during the Depression, coupled to the customary social, economic and political arrangement, such debt hung overhead like an iron cleaver. It precluded the chance that a poor and aged black man would ever have hours enough in a lifetime, much less in a matter of months, to earn what it took to erase a debt that was part of a system of duties and obligations that kept one particular class of people subservient to another. Elijah, a descendant of slaves, had spoken nothing of such obligations on this particular day; nor had my grandfather, a descendant of slave owners.
Having obliged himself to do Elijah a small favor as the afternoon sun bore down upon the sweaty back of Elijah’s trusty old mule, Grandfather took hold of the reins and plow handles as beneath the pummeling heat he jostled with the soil up one row and down the other. When Elijah eventually returned from his errand, Grandfather spoke the first word.
“You know, Elijah, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked behind a plow. Mighty hard work, I’d forgotten just how!”
“Yessir, Mister Davisson.”
“Elijah, you know that $5,000 you currently owe?”
“Yessir, Mister Davisson.”
“It’s forgiven. You don’t owe it anymore.”
Elijah stood in sheer dumbfounded amazement, exclaiming, “Oh, thank you, Mister Davisson! Thank you! Thank you!”
Not many months thereafter, early on a cold, blustery Sunday morn in January 1941, for causes I have never fully known nor fully understood, concerning the extent of all that burdened him and made him a prisoner within himself, my grandfather Clarence went to the basement of his house and put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
The irony of what otherwise appeared to be a largely successful life, despite the share of human foible and failure to which all are entitled, was that Grandfather Clarence at age sixty-five, having forgiven the $5,000 owed him by Elijah, could not for whatever personal reason forgive the “debt” he owed himself. Perhaps that, too, was debt in the form of a deficit long ago transmitted. My guess is that it had already begun to accumulate when at an early age he lost his mother to death’s dark door. Being told that he was somewhat unmanageable, he was soon shuffled off by his father to live with a relative. The rage that more than once manifested itself outwardly eventually turned its way inwardly upon the self.
Sometimes it is necessary to invert Jesus’ maxim, “As you wish that people would do to you, do so to them,” in order to say, “As people wish that you would do to them, do so to yourself.”
Of all the besetting sins of an increasingly narcissistic age of emptiness and brokenness, the failure to love oneself may be a root sin that is perpetuated down the cycles of the generations. In keeping with the Christ-like virtue of losing oneself in order to love another, not to love oneself at all makes it virtually impossible to love someone else. Yes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For, only as grace is received can grace be given.
Grandfather in a brief moment of grace walked in Elijah’s shoes. I do not know, nor can I know, precisely what that meant. Perhaps there dawned upon Grandfather the extent of sacrifice Elijah for so many years had made for him, which in turn made it possible in a system that had wounded them both for the one man to extend grace and the other to receive it.
Whatever may have been the case then, or soon thereafter upon that cold, blustery January morn, I believe by the eternal mercies of Christ that Papa Clarence has come at last, with Elijah, as shall we all, to receive the full measure of grace that shows itself upon the ever loving face of God.
“Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel, and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).
© COPYRIGHT, CHARLES DAVIDSON — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED — ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK, OCTOBER 21, 2002