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What Would Ben Franklin Say?

It was a warm Sunday afternoon in April. We were on our way home from New York City, which is a good four hours away. The youngest flower girl in our own wedding had just been married. She was just as beautiful the previous evening as she was 23 years ago. I felt like I was watching a blessed soul walking down yet another aisle leaving a trail of anticipation and hope. Of course, it made me think of my own daughters and how I hoped they would be graced with lasting love. Alas, I was getting ahead of myself.  The very thought of my girls getting married also made be depressed.

We had just picked up our dog Leo who spent his weekend with my in-laws. We were driving through the back roads of the Blackstone Valley in central Massachusetts pocketed with small towns. Hopedale. Mendon. Franklin. They were once home to French Canadians and other immigrants working in the textile mills or on farms. My husband’s earliest memories are of the old family farm, riding along in his father’s milk truck, or getting lost in corn rows.  Many of the farms no longer exist and the mills have all but disappeared. Suburbia and service roads now take up the space. It feels somehow uncomfortable as if I could be in Anywhere America, unmoored and without clear landmarks or a sense of community.

Yet, there is a very small sign we always pass along route 140. It honors the town of Franklin as the home of the first public library in the United States. It was established in 1778 when the town changed its name from Exeter to Franklin to honor the inventor Dr. Benjamin Franklin. In gratitude for the recognition, Franklin gifted some of his books to the town. As the story goes, this apparently caused a ruckus about who would house these treasures. Some sensible town folk decided to lend the books to the town residents at no cost and thus birthing the first lending library.

I’ve driven by this little road sign countless times and often think of Ben Franklin. For over two centuries we have absorbed Franklin’s wisdom in ways we may not even be aware. I will guess my girls have a faint idea about electricity and a kite rather than his timeless insights on life, liberty, and freedom. In one way or another many of us are familiar with his kitchen table quotes.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.

In taking a quick tour of Franklin’s quotes I find some other words of wisdom to be rather fitting when I think about our treasured and endangered institution of the public library.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

I wonder what Franklin might think of Google or Wikipedia? Even so, I offer a nod of gratitude every time I notice that small sign in Franklin.

But this Sunday drive was quickly punctured by another roadside scene.  At one of the many dilapidated service lots was a group of white teenage boys sitting and standing atop of several cars. They were cheering with their fists in the air to the seemingly infrequent Sunday drivers like ourselves. Leaning against one of the cars was a large hand-painted sign with purple letters: TRUMP.

I asked my husband to turn on the news. Did something happen and we were blissfully unaware? We couldn’t tell. The day before was Earth Day. There were gatherings for the March for Science events across the globe, albeit with different sorts of placards, posters, and cheers. We had jauntily joined one such march for about five blocks down Central Park West on our way to the wedding.

What were these boys up to? Did they have nothing better to do on their Sunday? Like pick up trash on the roadside?

My mind slid into judgment. I went right to catastrophizing as I flashed to scenes of clean cut blond boys in uniforms. The Nazi’s paramilitary youth movement. Quite a leap, I confess. But I am of German heritage and the geographic legacy percolates up from time to time.

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.

The boys were exercising their free speech and I had to give them that. But the scene really bothered me. It seemed out of place. Maybe it was their fists in the air.

It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.

Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.

I hoped my girls never dated one of those boys. (Oh, my mind again.)

That I’m writing about it two months later on the eve of Independence Day is testament to my irritation and my untethered stream of consciousness. I’ve been meditating on it, working with the difficult thoughts mired in fear, judgment, and implicit bias. I’ve been investigating my imagination with kindness, as recommended by my meditation teachers Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. I have been noticing the content of my mind as if I were standing on the outside looking in. “Oh, how interesting,” I tell myself. Then I wander and wonder. Would I feel the same way if the sign was for another politician or public figure? For a cause to better humanity or the planet? Or, that the gathering was instead made up of black boys? Muslim boys? Boy Scouts? Veterans? Or girls for that matter? Or, any combination of demographics and personal characteristics? My mind began to play a mix-and-match combo game. A hornet’s nest of uncomfortable feelings swept in.

Honesty is the best policy.

The roadside scene flared up for me recently when I attended a meet-up about encouraging more women public speakers and how we can better promote ourselves, lest we be mired in endless keynotes, panels, and conferences populated with men. “Male and pale,” noted one of the organizers. I thought of the group of boys in Franklin. I thought of the Founding Fathers.

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.

A part of me wishes we had pulled over and had a conversation with these boys. Who were they? What were their names? Why were they out there on the last day of spring break? Why do they like the current president? What does he represent for them? What do they stand for? What do they want to do with their lives? Or, maybe it would simply be about their cars or what they will do when school gets out for the summer.

A conversation would at the least make some sort of connection. A bridge toward understanding.

I will never know the answers to my questions. If the opportunity arose and  I were by myself, it’s unlikely I’d have a chat with a group of teenage boys on an empty roadside holding that particular sign. Yet, I do know a little more about my fears and biases. “Male and pale” stuck for me in part because a series of images and events conspired at the same moment: fears of the current political climate, patriarchy, adolescent idealism, group think, recollection of a holocaust, my heritage, my values, my daughters’ wellbeing, a beautiful wedding, and a march for science.

The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.

I try to catch myself before getting trapped by judgment.  I slow down my breath. This seems to give enough space so I can begin to respond in a thoughtful way—to my own internal life and to what sort of actions I might take—like having courageous conversations, taking social action, or nurturing our daughters to be good citizens and make wise choices.

That little roadside plaque in Franklin now serves as a new reminder:  we are all rooted by place and time—if only we’d stop for a moment to be open and curious. And maybe even a little more kind.

Keep up to day about my book, The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World.


Franklin, America’s First Public Library

Quotes from Ben Franklin

Photo Credit

Eugene Triguba

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