Complaining was not the Adamses’ mode. The adjustments were more difficult than they would concede. The humiliation that defeat and popular rejection had inflicted on them, the death of Charles, and now sudden, total seclusion took a heavy toll. In some circles, they knew, they were openly despised. In others they were now considered irrelevant. Worst perhaps was the sense that no one any longer cared about them one way or the other.
David McCullough’s observation about John and Abigail Adams after they retired from public life upon losing the presidency to Jefferson in a bitterly contested and controversial election…
After all of his travels, all of his achievements, all of his public service and accomplishments – minister plenipotentiary to France, minister to England, ambassador to Holland, regarded as the mind of the revolution, a pivotal voice in the Continental Congress, first Vice President of the United States, second President of the United States, father of the sixth President of the United States, and after a lifetime of all of that he allowed that if it had it to do all over again…
…he would have simply been a shoemaker.
Adams frequently related this story from his younger days:
Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to know who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he had knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “Sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sing again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered.
“Which was the greatest philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.
How driven we can be to achieve so much. And it’s no doubt good that we are. Adams achieved much from which generations continue to reap the benefits whether they are sensible to it or not.
But I suspect few of us are sensible to the wisdom and impact of a shoemaker life – which is in fact the life most people on this planet live.
Rather than looking past it to more impressive looming horizons of imagined aspirations for which we will spend ourselves, our families, our life blood reaching for and more often than not drowning ourselves in sorrows when we sense we have failed to achieve it, oh to be present to this and living it well…
and hearing and singing its song.
Like a nightingale.