Don Izard (IZARD@UBVM.BITNET)
Mon, 20 Dec 1993 09:27:13 EST
sounds like a nice scout masters minute?
(Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for a Wonderful and Healthy 1994!
Just thought I'd pass something nice along to you:)
John Pierpont died a failure. In 1866, at age eighty-one, he came to
the end of his days as a government clerk in Washington, D.C., with a
long string of personal defeats abrading his spirit.
Things began well enough. He graduated from Yale, which his grandfather
had helped found, and chose education as his profession with some
He was a failure at schoolteaching. He was too easy on his students.
And so he turned to the legal world for training.
He was a failure as a lawyer. He was too generous to his clients and
too concerned about justice to take the cases that brought good fees.
The next career he took up was that of dry-goods merchant.
He was a failure as a businessman. He could not charge enough for his
goods to make a profit, and was too liberal with credit. In the meantime
he had been writing poetry, and though it was published, he didn't
collect enough royalties to make a living.
He was a failure as a poet. And so he decided to become a minister,
went off to Harvard Divinity School, was ordained as a minister of the
Hollis Street Church in Boston. But his position for Prohibition and
against slavery got him crosswise with the influential members of his
congregation and he was forced to resign.
He was a failure as a minister. Politics seemed a place where he could
make some difference, and he was nominated as the Abolition Party
candidate for governor of Massachusetts. He lost. Undaunted, he ran for
Congress under the banner of the Free Soil party. He lost.
He was a failure as a politician. The Civil War came along, and he
volunteered as a chaplain of the 22nd Regiment of the Massachusetts
Volunteers. Two weeks later he quit, having found the task too much of a
strain on his health. He was seventy-six years old. He couldn't even
make it as a chaplain.
Someone found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury
Department in Washington, and he finished out the last five years of his
life as a menial file clerk. He wasn't very good at that, either. His
heart was not in it.
John Pierpont died a failure. He had accomplished nothing he set out to
do or be. There is a small memorial stone marking his grave in Mount
Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The words in the granite
read: POET, PREACHER, PHILOSOPHER, PHILANTHROPIST.
From this distance in time, one might insist that he was not, in fact,
a failure. His commitments to social justice, his desire to be a loving
human being, his active engagement in the great issues of his times, and
his faith in the power of the human mind--these are not failures. And
much of what he thought of as defeat became success. Education was
reformed, legal processes were improved, credit laws were changed, and,
above all, slavery was abolished once and for all.
Why am I telling you this? It's not an uncommon story. Many
nineteenth-century reformers had similar lives--similar failures and
successes. In one very important sense, John Pierpont was not a failure.
Every year, come December, we celebrate his success. We carry in our
hearts and minds a lifelong memorial to him.
It's a song.
Not about Jesus or angels or even Santa Claus. It's a terribly simple
song about the simple joy of whizzing through the cold white dark of
wintersgloom in a sleigh pulled by one horse. And with the company of
friends, laughing and singing all the way. No more. No less. "Jingle
Bells." John Pierpont wrote "Jingle Bells."
To write a song that stands for the simplest joys, to write a song that
three or four hundred million people around the world know--a song about
something they've never done but can imagine--a song that every one of
us, large and small, can hoot out the moment the chord is struck on the
piano and the chord is struck in our spirit--well, that's not failure.
One snowy afternoon in deep winter, John Pierpont penned the lines as a
small gift for his family and friends and congregation. And in doing so
left behind a permanent gift for Christmas--the best kind--not the one
under the tree, but the invisible, invincible one of joy.
(Postscript. In the winter of 1987, in the Methow Valley of the Cascade
Mountains of Washington State, I finally got a long-held wish. The snow
was three feet deep, the temperature hung at zero, the sky was clear,
the sleigh was open, the horse was dappled gray with red harness and
bells. And we dashed over the snow, laughing all the way.
Thanks, John Pierpont. Every word of the song is true.)
-- a piece by Robert Fulghum in _It_Was_on_Fire_When_I_Lay_Down_on_It_
Villard Books, 1989
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