Misplaced Values

lewis penAn elderly church usher just left his home as a bequest to his church. That isn’t uncommon, but the fact that his home was filled with a vast collection of toy cars accumulated during a lifetime, was rather unusual.

The church will doubtless reap unexpected treasure from the collection’s sale, along with that of a couple of well restored classic autos. That’s nice news for them, and for the other collectors who will find some rare treasures “recycled” into the hobby during the months ahead.

What disturbed me, was the first comment offered on the website in response to the story.

“I throw everything away, even photos people hand me. Keeps me living in the present.”

That comment is disturbing on several levels. First of all, it reveals an utter disregard for the people who give gifts, “even photos,” to the writer. I hope the person has the integrity to tell their acquaintances not to waste their time and money on offering him (or her) tokens of their concern.

Second, if taken literally, the statement that he (I’ll assume it’s a guy, since I have a difficult time picturing a woman this crass) “throw[s] everything away,” is criminal. While things like photographs rarely have value to anyone but those who know the people in them, virtually any other sort of item possesses some tangible value. To toss them in the garbage—presumably for one’s selfish convenience—is terrible, when every community has charities that could use unwanted possessions to generate support for worthy enterprises.

The third thing that offends me about this comment is the inference that people who do not dispose of things in a similar manner become incapable of “living in the present.” What an impoverished view of the power of images and objects to evoke powerful and valuable memories and sentiments!

We are not talking here about someone who is afflicted with “compulsive hoarding,” that has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder. We are talking about a collector with an innocent interest. Or, removing the comment from this specific context, we would be referring to anyone who bothered to retain a photograph of their nephew or niece they received from a sibling.

I love history. But I don’t expect others to share my interest in the same sorts of artifacts that I have gathered through the years. Still, holding a coin with the image of Constantine the Great, or a civil war token with the USS Monitor adorning the obverse, don’t confine me to the distant past.

Studying history does just the opposite. It enables me to live with greater wisdom and insight in the present. C.S. Lewis summarized this truth quite eloquently.

To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. (Selected Literary Essays, “De Descriptione Temporum”).

Another observation about history’s importance from the pen of Lewis is found in The Weight of Glory. He reveals how only through the study of history can we be delivered from the danger of believing that “living in the present” is being held prisoner to current cultural conventions.

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Thank God that you are not one of those whose vision is restricted to the current age, with its cacophony of reality television and unbridled hedonism. (I can confidently make that observation based on your reading this column to its end.)

Obviously, it’s not necessary to handle or possess actual artifacts to appreciate history . . . although I occasionally take my civil war sabre down from the wall and think about how my great-grandfather wielded one just like it.

That said, who among us would not love to have in their personal library the very copy of a book that had come from C.S. Lewis’ own?

For an excellent exploration of the current disposition of C.S. Lewis manuscripts and legacy, check out the current post at the always excellent A Pilgrim in Narnia.


The image above of pipe and pen is from a display at The Wade Center, at Wheaton College.

14 thoughts on “Misplaced Values

  1. There’s a great little gift shop on the side of Lookout Mountain, right next to the tracks that guide the Incline Railway. Under the register, behind the glass, are little pieces of mangled lead. They are odd-looking little chunks that rarely catch anyone’s eye. But they are where the term “bite the bullet” comes from. They are what’s left of lead bullets (mini balls) that the wounded would chew on as they were having limbs amputated. Talk about history! To hold one of those is one’s hand should be a reminder that freedom from anything isn’t free, or painless.

    1. That’s an excellent example. Small artifacts that can be held, or even kept in one’s personal possession are individual treasures. And then we have historic sites, like the recently recaptured city of Palmyra. I am so pleased to learn that not all of the “ruins” were not dismembered and sold by ISIS.

  2. Wonderful post! I wouldn’t be so quick to assume the commenter was male, though – decluttering minimalism is universally trendy, with tidying books and simple-living blogs popping up all over. I often look at these decluttering guides and feel a little guilty for my little collections, so I thank you for making me feel like a historian when I just can’t part with my teapots!

  3. My mother managed to both hoard and throw everything away. Very much a person who insisted on “living in the present” or to put it another way, left everyone else to clean up her messes as she ran away to another one. I so wish I had just one family photo to look at or show my own kids. Or had relatives I was allowed to know.
    And, quite right, I have never been able to sit through a reality show.

    1. I feel sorry for you. Through the years I have heard similar tales from other people. How tragic it is when people live so selfishly they deprive their children of the blessings of extended family. Sadly, in my own case, my alcoholic father never nurtured our relationships with his family until late in life when he had been sober for a number of years. By then it was too late to build memories together. We have maintained cordial but emotionally disconnected relationships since then. Unfortunately, living 2,000 miles away from one another, with the next generation knowing no relationship at all, even those tenuous bonds will fade away.

  4. “…the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

    A great quote and very true. Those of us who have studied history are doomed to watch in frustration as everyone else repeats it.

    1. True. What amazes and saddens me is how prone some people are to dismiss history. So, when those of us who recognize the patterns warn of impending hazards… they dismiss the concern with a wave of their hand and the words, “well, it will be different this time…”

    1. I really need to pick it up again. Just skimmed it, years ago. I’m more of a practical thinker than a philosopher. I appreciate those who are able to faithfully navigate such waters, but the draw for me in this volume is the historical dimension.

      That said, it is a brilliant work… and I definitely owe it a revisit.

      1. I find it fascinating as an illumination of a worldview that is very different from the modern/postmodern. A worldview that most people I know can hardly imagine. But Lewis makes it imaginable.
        Trying to understand how other people think/have thought is, I think, a very practical thing. ;)

      2. Yes, that is practical. But the common folk–then and now–don’t think in the broader abstract concepts. Their lives, it seems to me, revolve(d) much more directly around the five senses.

      3. True, but they, as now, were very much influenced by the assumptions brought to them by their philosophers and priests. Those assumptions permeate society from top to bottom simply by how language is used. Therefore how they interpreted the input of their five senses was, at the very least, colored by the worldview of medieval scholars. And of course, the worldview of the medieval scholars also were influenced by the assumptions and beliefs of ordinary folk.

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