Archive for January, 2023

How and When – If Ever – Will the Lives We Lead Be Judged?

January 19, 2023

Today’s post was prompted by a lengthy article titled “A Theology of the Present Moment,” by novelist Marilynne Robinson.  It appeared in the December 22, 2022 issue of the New York Review of Books. Her piece is an intellectually challenging discussion of the interplay between science and religion; I had to read it at least twice in order to begin to understand what she was getting at. It’s been worth the effort.

Marilynne Robinson

But here’s the part that jumped out at me. She sets the stage for it by recounting, from Genesis, the story of Joseph. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, but later on he comes to great power in Egypt and forgives them. They had evil intent. God turned it around and made it good. Robinson sums it up by saying “One cruel prank opened into a major event in the history of the world.”

She goes on to make some grim observations that everybody might do well to keep in mind today:

“Most people in the world would say their lives are insignificant, historically speaking, but it might be prudent to consider whether the relative blamelessness that is assumed to come with insignificance can be relied upon. We are not competent to decide how much we matter in the long term.

“One of my favorite Puritans – the seventeenth-century divine John Flavel – said that we will be judged twice, once when we die and once when everything we have said or done has had its final effect. Whisper a cruel rumor – who knows what force it will acquire if it lives.”

A little later, she quotes the apostle James: “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

And from there, she recounts “Over centuries slanders have burned heretics and witches, launched pogroms and inquisitions, inspired lynchings and purges. Now we have grown used to hearing Americans calling Americans demons, Satanists, and pedophiles – utterly damning language, abetted by the Internet but not qualitatively different from the language that fueled the great fires of hatred and fear that mar and disgrace Western history.”

“We can see with our own eyes how exciting this conflagration is to many people in this country, even while it threatens to consume democracy, root and branch. Our children and their children will grow up in a country much changed by this, not for the better. The most effective polemicist of the day is legislating for our descendants. And anyone who gives force to his or her word will be liable to that second judgment. These crimes are collective, and a nod or silence is complicity.”

Whew! There’s a good deal of truthful insight here, and as I noted above it’s good to keep these observations in mind. But talk about a worst-case scenario. Is this the whole story?

Thankfully, it’s not the whole story.

We can’t summarily dismiss Marilynne’s dark vision. She’s right in saying that, while we might think our own lives are insignificant, we just don’t know what effects even our seemingly small deeds and casually-spoken words can have in the immediate moment and very far into the future.  She also seems to be right that we’ll all be liable to that “second judgment.” But that second judgment won’t inevitably damn us all to hell. In fact, the perpetually-revising second judgments will continually boost many of us to ever-higher places in the heavenly spheres. 

I state this with confidence, for two reasons: my work as a Holocaust educator, and my wife Mary Ellen’s work as an elementary school teacher.

Let’s take the more complex one first, the Holocaust. My research for Mary Wygodski’s biography, Evil Must Not Have the Last Word,  led me to develop an adult-education course that I’ve delivered at least a dozen times over the past four years or so. In that course, I devote considerable time to stories of The Righteous Gentiles, those people who risked all they had to shield and save Jewish victims of the Nazis.

The Holocaust, the organized murder of six million Jews, was one of those great fires of hatred and fear that Marilynne Robinson speaks of. But not everyone in the countries where it happened was a participant; not everyone was silently complicit. As of January, 2022, Israel’s Yad Vashem Remembrance Center had identified and documented 28,217 individuals who saved the life of at least one Jewish person. In most cases, it was more than one Jew whose life was saved by each of those righteous folks.

Just think about it. Here we are, three generations later. The descendants of those who were saved now number in the hundreds of thousands. The “second judgment meter” is still running for the rescuers. It will never stop, really. And I can only imagine that it’s running in a positive direction.

There’s one more point to be made about these rescuers and righteous: they were all so ordinary, so unimpressive by any earthly measure.  As Marilynne might describe them, they were “insignificant.”

Here’s just one example.  Poland, the country that lost three million of its 3.3 million Jews, can also claim 7,232 righteous gentiles. That’s more than any other country, by far. Yad Vashem was able to document the professions of around 2,000 of them. The largest category? Peasants and foresters, numbering 1,266. None of the fourteen other categories even had 100 members.

It was the poor, property-less people in Poland who saved at least ten thousand lives, and probably more. Maybe they, too, thought their own lives were insignificant. How wrong they would be to think that.

The other thing that came to mind, the life and 30+-year teaching career of Mary Ellen, brought back a glow of pride in what my son Matthew wrote about her when she died three years ago. I posted the full text on this blog site, and you can read it here.

Matt’s mention of a Buddhist religious belief was very close to Marilynne Robinson’s point about the two judgments.   He wrote, “…this concept stipulates that everyone actually dies twice. The first time is when you shuffle off this earthly body. And the second time occurs when the last person who remembers you, passes away. And the reason is that everyone in your life, everyone you meet, carries with them the thoughts, the memories, and the influences that you had on their life.”

Matt wasn’t talking solely about us, the members of the immediate family and Mary Ellen’s close friends. He also wrote of some 770 former grade-school children.  They’re all adults now, or close to adulthood. It will be at least 60 years before the last of them passes away. Probably longer.

So, my beloved wife will be alive in the Buddhist tradition for decades to come. And I’m further comforted in knowing that the second judgment she will face will not come for many years after that, if ever. I know how she shaped so many lives for the better, how she launched innumerable careers in the best way imaginable. That second judgment will be a joyous coronation for her.

Where am I going with all this? I’m finished, so it’s better to ask where I’ve been. I guess I’m happy with the way this piece turned out. I found a silver lining in the dark storm clouds that Marilynne Robinson’s perceptive assessment pointed out. And she wasn’t entirely negative in that assessment. She does point out that “the beauty of this view of things [the idea of two judgments] is that it acknowledges the reach and potency of our lives, for good or for ill.” She’s right in the points she makes. So, I think, am I, in seeking that silver lining.

All those little things that we say and do every day will be echoing down through the years.  Let’s do our best to assure that those echoes are sweet and pleasant ones, and that the second judgment we face will be a favorable one

The Day with Two Noons, and How Eastern Standard Time Came to Be

January 11, 2023

Many years ago, I was listening to a late-night radio show. Up came the topic of how the map of the world got divided up neatly into 24 segments, each of which registered the time on its clocks as different by one hour from the times in the adjacent segments.

                The show host – I believe it was Dick Summer of Boston’s WBZ  – noted that the job of laying out the world into those segments had been done by a little-known Russian cartographer by the name of Alex Andersrag.

                After an appropriate pause, he continued, “And that’s where we got the Alex Andersrag Time Band.”

                Boo! Hiss! My kind of groaner…one of the best I’ve ever heard.

                That sick pun came to mind recently when I read the real story of how time zones and standard times in America came to be. It was the work of a man who deserves to be remembered but whose name is virtually lost to history: Charles Ferdinand Dowd.

Charles Dowd

                Dowd graduated from Yale in 1853. He got married, moved to upstate New York and eventually settled in Saratoga Springs. He and his wife Miriam, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary, bought the Temple Grove Seminary in Saratoga Springs and taught there for 35 years.

                According to one of his biographers, Dowd “liked order, and he disliked confusion.” He was also a frequent railroad traveler, and he knew that there was little order and much confusion that stemmed from the difference between local times and railroad times. It wasn’t only confusing. It was life-threatening.

                In 1853, the year Dowd graduated from Yale, a story in the New York Times laid out the problem that Dowd would eventually solve. Two express trains, speeding in opposite directions, had collided head-on and killed several passengers.

“Our columns groan again with reports of wholesale slaughter by railroad trains…the variation of a time-piece is assigned as the immediate occasion of the meeting…Has human ingenuity been exhausted, in devising the means – or has the power of Society proved unable to enforce by law such regulations as will prevent these horrible holocausts to the Railway demon?”

                What was the problem? There was no uniform standard of time. In every place in the country, they determined noon of the day astronomically. It was 12 noon when the sun was directly overhead. Just as one example, in Connecticut there was eight minutes’ difference registering on town clocks between the Rhode Island border to the east and the New York border to the west.

Every railroad in the country operated on its own sweet time when constructing its timetables. If there were any differences, transfer-seeking passengers had to figure them out. It was a nuisance, but as the case of the 1853 crash sadly proved, it could often be a fatal nuisance. And especially since the end of the Civil War and the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869, thousands of railroad lines crisscrossed the nation. Timely connections and uniform timetables became an even more critical need.

Charles Dowd, the order-obsessed philosophy professor from Saratoga Springs, set out to do it. He already had some technology-based tools at his disposal. In New York, citizens had been able to do away with reliance on sundials in 1877, thanks to Western Union. At noon every day, a telegraph operator at the Naval Observatory in Washington would tap a key. That signaled an electromagnet in New York, tripping a lever that released a large copper ball atop a pole at the Western Union Telegraph Building in New York. The ball descended, and New Yorkers knew that it was noontime.

That was nice for New York. But what about the rest of the country?

Dowd’s first try at an all-encompassing system failed. He made more than eight thousand calculations along five hundred rail lines, and he came up with a uniform national time. It didn’t work. The four-hour time difference between the coasts was too great. So he went back to work and drew up a set of four time zones, each fifteen degrees of longitude in width.

That was in 1863, when he presented it to his students at the seminary. Six years later, he proposed the system to a group of railway executives in New York City. And for the next fourteen years he lobbied and badgered anyone who would listen – engineers, astronomers, college professors, magazine and newspaper edits.  Dowd wasn’t in it for the money. He just wanted to solve the problem.

Fortunately, he’d found a champion. John Toucey was general manager of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. His line’s Grand Central Depot was the nation’s busiest. In 1883, a full 20 years after Dowd had devised the system, Toucey introduced it as a resolution before the General Railway Time Convention. The resolution consolidated the 50 existing time zones into four.

The new system became effective on Sunday, November 18, 1883. It helped that New York mayor Franklin Edson was on board, decreeing that all clocks comply with the new railway time. That day became known as “the day with two noons,” because the ball atop the Western Union Telegraph Building would descend twice. First it would signal 12:00 noon local time; then it would signal 12:00 Eastern Standard Time.

At 9:00 a.m. New York time on that day, the superintendent of Western Union’s Time Telegraph subsidiary stopped the pendulum of his regulator clock. Time stood still for three minutes and 58 seconds, when the pendulum was reactivated. Ten o’clock came and went, and then twelve noon New York time the ball dropped.  Four minutes later the ball dropped again. It was noon, Eastern Standard Time.

The U.S. Attorney General, Benjamin Brewster, tried to get in on the act. He stated that such a revision that affected the entire nation needed congressional approval. But the superintendent of the Naval Observatory ignored him and adopted the railway standard as the nation’s official timekeeper.

The New York Times covered the story of the new standard time on page five, remarking that “All intelligent persons will ask why the change was not made years ago.” And that very day its front page headline blared “TERRIBLE RAILWAY COLLISION IN ILLINOIS.”

Charles Dowd, the man who had made it all possible, was nearly forgotten. That’s because he didn’t write the history. He tried, but the man who told the story and claimed the credit was William Allen, an engineer and editor of the Travelers’ Official Railway Guide for the United States.  

At least Allen pointed out that Dowd’s original proposal in 1870 to his organization was “the first published proposition of which I have any knowledge.”  And somewhere along the way, Dowd received annual passes from all major railways, in recognition of his claim of designing the country’s time zones.

Dowd’s life ended tragically. At age 80, in November 1904, he went to visit a sick friend. As he was walking home, he was killed by a train as he crossed North Broadway in Saratoga Springs.  Delaware and Hudson train number 6, running late and speeding around a corner at 30 miles an hour just two blocks from the station, ran over him.

Saratoga Springs’ city fathers eventually recognized Charles Dowd’s towering achievement some years later when, near the site of the fatal accident, they placed a monument to his name: a sundial.

(Note: My source for this story is The New Yorkers: 31 Remarkable People, 400 Years, and the Untold Biography of the World’s Greatest City, by Sam Roberts.)