An Olympic Gold Medal and a Wooden Cane

I am a sentimentalist.

I have a wooden cane that belonged to Robert Thacker, a man born nearly two hundred years ago in 1819. Into that cane are carved two upwardly spiraling serpents and, at the top, a small closed hand. It’s an elegant but simple cane.

Robert Thacker was my great, great grandfather.

That cane was in my boyhood home and I acquired it when my dad, also Robert Thacker, died nearly twenty years ago. I treasure that cane. It connects me to my dad, like it probably connected him to his dad. When I hold it, it reminds me of home.

I have several other items to which I attach significant sentimental value: I have two plain gold wedding bands that my mother promised to me when she was dying of cancer (I have worn one of them on a necklace for over 33 years).  I have handwritten letters of a great, great grandmother of mine from the mid-1870s as well as some original photos dating back to that time. I have many books from my paternal grandfather (also Robert Thacker) which are over one hundred years old and a c. 1920 mechanical calculator that he used. And I have several other similar family items.

Those items have little monetary value (maybe the cane might fetch ten or twenty bucks in an antique store?) but they have tremendous sentimental value to me. They are items that were held and used by ancestors of mine. I’ll never know much about my great great grandfather Robert Thacker but I have held the very cane he walked with over 120 years ago.

What made me think about these items of mine was an article I read in Minneapolis Star Tribune last week.

Bill Christian and his son, Dave, who both lived just 20 miles from me in rural northern Minnesota when I was a kid, are selling all of their hockey memorabilia.  No, they are not memorabilia collectors who have decided to sell their collections.  They are former hockey players.  And they are selling their own stuff.  And by “stuff” I mean Bill Christian’s 1960 Olympic gold medal in hockey and Dave Christian’s 1980 Olympic gold medal in hockey (he was a member of the “Miracle on Ice” team that defeated the Soviet Union), along with their Olympic jerseys, rings, and other items (including items from Dave Christian’s career as a professional hockey player).

When I read that, I was dumbfounded.  Yes, they will reap a fair amount of money (Dave’s 1980 Olympic gold medal, in particular, has a current auction bid price of $300,000) but what about the sentimental value of the items?  Mightn’t their kids and grandkids like to have those things as mementos of their dad and grand dad?

That lovely old cane of mine is no Olympic gold medal but I cannot imagine parting with it, at least not selling it.  It’s part of my life.  It was part of my great, great grandfather’s life, and of my great grandfather’s life, and of my grandfather’s life, and of my father’s life. So why would something that is so closely identified with the Christians not hold a similar value to their children and grandchildren?

But, the more I thought about it, the less jarring the sale of those items seems.

Someday, my cane, my mother’s two gold wedding bands, and all of the other items that I value so greatly will have zero sentimental value to anyone. Each of those items will eventually either be sold or discarded.  It is inevitable.  Generally, the sentimentality attached to physical family items will, at most, last a few generations.  Consider this: Going back one generation, a person has two parents; going back two generations, a person has four grandparents; going back three generations, a person has eight great grandparents – after ten generations, a person has over 1,000 great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents.  How much sentimentality can you attach to a person who not only lived many generations before you but who is merely one of more than 1,000 people who are similarly related to you?  You couldn’t even remember all of their names, let alone know much that is meaningful about any one of them.  By that time, those distant ancestors are simply a foggy blur in a long ago past, if they haven’t already become completely lost to history and forgotten forever.

So, what would happen if Dave Christian kept his gold medal?  One of his kids would get it.  And then one of his grandkids would get it. And then maybe one of his great grandkids would get it.  Eventually, it would end up in someone’s hands who didn’t care about it and it would get sold, and probably for a lot less than it will sell for today. Why might it sell for less in the future than it would sell for today?  Well, in 100 or 200 years, the 1980 Olympic victory will be less relevant to American life than John Adams is to today’s school kids.  By that time, most people won’t even know the Soviet Union ever existed – and certainly not that Soviets once lost a hockey game!  Hell, how many people today know anything about the Ottoman Empire – and that empire collapsed less than 100 years ago after World War I?

Years ago, I remember reading a prediction about the great physicist Albert Einstein: In ten thousand years, Einstein will be a mere footnote in history, even though he was one of the greatest scientists to have lived in the last two hundred years.  How much less will that 1980 Olympic hockey game be remembered?

When viewed in that light, the decision by the Christians to sell their hockey memorabilia isn’t so stupefying.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy having that wooden cane of Robert Thacker.  What happens to it after I’m gone, I cannot control.


Everything Happens for a Reason

Oftentimes when something terrible happens, such as a young parent gets inoperable brain cancer, a child is cruelly assaulted and murdered, or a famine or tsunami kills tens of thousands of innocent people in Africa or Asia, some people will say, “Everything happens for a reason.”

The implication is that God, in his infinite wisdom, sometimes has inscrutable reasons for terrible events that just don’t make sense to mere humans and, ultimately, everything that happens serves a greater purpose known only to God.

If it is true that everything that happens occurs because God wills it to happen, then the additional implication is that God necessarily controls everything that happens.  And, if that is true, then humans do not have any free will.

For example, if everything, quite literally, has a reason and if that reason is rooted in God’s will, then the pedophile who assaults, tortures, and murders a little girl cannot help but do what he did because it was God’s will that he assaulted, tortured, and killed a little girl.  If a murderous pedophile’s conduct is not God’s will (and the pedophile, instead, had free will to choose to do or not do what he did), then it is illogical to say, “Everything happens for a reason” that is based on God’s will.

So, is it not true that either (A) everything has a reason based on God’s will (including every horrible event that has ever happened to humans) and humans, therefore, have no free will or (B) humans have free will, things will happen that God does not want to have happen, and everything does not happen for a reason?

For those who believe in an all-powerful God, is there a third alternative?

My sense is that people say, “Everything has a reason” because it is often too unbearable to think that something terrible can happen to an innocent person without there being a good, but hidden, reason for that happening but that, logically, they don’t think through the necessary implications of that statement.


Thoughts of Christmas…in August

With the Christmas season almost upon us (at least according to retailers, who will soon be peddling Thanksgiving trinkets, quickly followed by shelves stuffed with Christmas gewgaws in anticipation of the aptly-named Black Friday), here is an excerpt of a 1959 letter to Adlai Stevenson (twice the Democratic nominee for president) from John Steinbeck.  It is worth reading and thinking about as you plan your Christmas shopping list:

“Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence. Once I gave my youngest boy, who loves all living things, a dwarf, peach-faced parrot for Christmas. He removed the paper and then retreated a little shyly and looked at the little bird for a long time. And finally he said in a whisper, ‘Now who would have ever thought that I would have a peach-faced parrot?’

“Then there is the other kind of Christmas with presents piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says – ‘Is that all?’  Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”