Life on the Fifth of July
We Canadians and Americans have just emerged from the holiday weekend celebrating our respective countries’ nativities and histories. Canadians nowadays typically enjoy celebrating Canada by silly comedy pointing out our (generally small) differences from Americans, as here and here. Americans typically enjoy celebrating the U.S. of A. by…well, I can’t think of any particular way Americans celebrate, our cousins being so shy and undemonstrative when it comes to the Fourth.
It is a weekend particularly to recall nation-building heroes: John A. Macdonald, Georges-Etienne Cartier, Wilfrid Laurier and Louis Riel, plus the Founding Fathers of the American Republic, none of whose names come to mind just now.
The vast majority of us, however, are not heroes, and our names come to few minds today, let alone after we’re gone. Yet nations are built of such people as well. History is a river that flows with us. And two passages came to mind today as we consider July the Fifth, a sort of “All Citizens Day” after we recall the “All Heroes Day” of the first or fourth day of July.
The first is from the conclusion of George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch. The protagonist (could one call her the heroine?) of the novel, Dorothea Brooke, has sought to live a great life in small circumstances. And the narrator kindly concludes,
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Likewise, C. S. Lewis, for all his superior talent, appreciated the quotidian as few great authors have ever done. He challenges us in this equally famous observation in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
So here’s to the heroes of the first and fourth, inspiring as they truly are, warts and all.
But here’s to the heroes of the rest of the year also, you and me and each of us, who shoulder our part of the collective burden and joy of human life, a great gift to be spent carefully, gratefully, usefully, and faithfully.
Today is the first day of the rest of the year. Happy Fifth of July!