Finishing up David McCullough’s John Adams this week in my second read through. Some good gleanings. Again. Glad I have an excuse to reread John Adams every other year as I use it as one of my texts for the American Government class I get to teach in the company of wondrous high schoolers.
Loved the incident McCullough relates from Adam’s declining years. Adams had assumed that retiring from public life would also mean retiring from so much of the controversy and contention that had surrounded him through his political and public life.
No such luck.
Five years into retirement, one he had regarded as a close friend publicly lambasted him in a published work and Adams felt he simply had to respond.
And respond he did…
“Never wholeheartedly devoted to the task of writing his autobiography, he now abandoned the project altogether and launched into a lengthy—some thought interminable—spate of letters to the Boston Patriot, his last passionate exercise in self-justification. At the start he concentrated on answering the charges leveled by Hamilton in the heat of the 1800 election, then continued on to review his role in foreign affairs, from his difficulties with Franklin in Paris to the dismissal of Timothy Pickering to the XYZ Affair and the missions to France. He became the attorney for the accused—fierce and vivid in defense, writing with exceptional vigor and not a little self-admiration, even occasional wonderment at his own virtuous tenacity in the face of opposition and intrigue.
The letters appeared almost weekly for three years, until Adams, too, it appears, realized how tiresome he had become and called a halt. “Voltaire boasted that he made four presses groan for sixty years, but I have to repent that I made the Patriot groan for three,” he later wrote to a friend, aware that his efforts had been largely in vain.”
I remember years ago sitting at David Roper’s table during one of his “Boise Bunch” sessions – monthly gatherings of pastors from across the Treasure Valley that would crowd around his table to eat pizza, snack on peanut M&Ms, chew on Scripture, and savor David’s gentle, grace-filled wisdom.
This day one of the pastors present was in the middle of congregational upheaval (imagine!) and was asking David about how he should respond, especially as he was considering written responses to others’ written accusations (I think this was back in the day before Facebook and blogs).
David’s answer: “Don’t.”
Now I’m pretty sure he elaborated on that – that it’s counterproductive, that it exasperates an already contentious situation, that the quiet example of your life speaks louder than your words spoken in your own defense, etc. – but it was the simple “don’t” that stuck with me. That sticks with me.
Sure, there are times to speak up in your own defense or in defense of others, and sure, there are wise and healthy ways of doing it and plenty very much less so. But I wonder if such occasions aren’t greatly outnumbered by the times silence needs to be allowed to do all the talking necessary…and if we don’t usually invert the ratio of such situations causing much unneeded groaning of both presses and readers.
I think this was the lesson Adams learned after his prolonged three-year defense.
Yes, there is a time to speak…
…and a time to be silent.