Jason Byassee: Sniff in the history

It can remind you why you love your work and maybe even save you from jail: Visit the graveyard. Stroll your institution's grounds. Sniff in the history.

Prompted by an interest in prison ministry, I’ve been reading Charles Colson’s autobiography, Born Again. As he traces his fall from Nixon’s personal legal counsel and hatchet man to Watergate convict and lowly prison inmate, Colson attributes his fall primarily to pride. And the tonic he thinks he could have used is not quite humility, as we might think, but history.

Colson describes a member of Eisenhower’s White House staff who once gave him advice he wishes he’d heeded: “Once in a while just walk around, look at the beauty of the grounds and the buildings, take deep breaths and sniff in the history. It will help you to remember where you are and keep things in perspective.” The implication is that such contemplative walks and sniffing in of history would have reminded him that the presidency as an institution much predates present partisan goings-on. That the country’s longevity is more important than mere present political gain. And that one is answerable to previous and future generations for how one leads. Colson laments he didn’t take the advice: “The past months had been too frantic. There wasn’t time to think about much beyond postal strikes, Cambodia, student protests . . . We were too busy making history ourselves to think about the history that had been made here -- sometimes too busy to think at all.”

That’s a dangerous place to be. One too busy to think is certainly too busy to examine her or his moral motives in stewarding the institutions with which one has been entrusted.

When I was a local pastor I used to make a point of strolling in the cemetery. It helped me to see the last names of people I was pastoring now, some of whom seemed perennially annoyed with me (and vice-versa). It reminded me that they and their families had been contributors to that community for a long time. Their ancestors were out back, forever “at church” in a way, testifying to their hope of Jesus’ return and their bodily resurrection with a burial in a churchyard. Somehow those walks made me more ready to be pastorally attentive to their descendents who were walking around above ground. It sent me back to my study with more energy to prepare to preach and teach. Such sniffing in the history made me a better pastor. Subsequently when I’ve been a teacher I’ve wandered campuses thinking about generations of professors who have spent lives molding students’ minds, and more importantly, their souls. Physical places remind you of lives well-lived, dedicated to the very work you’re doing. It’s not to be taken lightly.

How do you keep alive a sense of the importance of the institution you steward? In what way do you remind yourself to sniff in the history?

George Eliot famously concluded Middlemarch with these stunning words: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Let me challenge you with these words: Go visit the graveyard. Stroll around your institution’s grounds and sniff in the history. Colson thinks it might save you from jail. Much more mundanely, it might remind you why you love your work and make more likely that some day you will leave it better for generations that will forget to visit your tomb.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.