Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.
As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.
“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace
This week is my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving. On Thursday I will be smoking my turkey for 5 hours and roasting some dark meat to add extra variety. We will be serving all the best sides: green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, corn casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, apple pie, and pumpkin pie. I really enjoy talking about Thanksgiving with other people and hearing about their favorite dishes; macaroni and cheese seems like a popular one along with yams topped with marshmallows. I always wondered where all these traditions came from? To better understand my favorite holiday, I am reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick which is all about the Pilgrims and their first 50 years in the New World. The Pilgrims were the type of people that today you may describe as “cultish.” They believed that their form of worship was the best and they wanted to be completely isolated from the world to practice their extreme form of Christianity. They were so deadset on escaping the Church of England that they risked their lives to travel to a land where death and despair were everyday occurrences. Could you imagine a pastor today saying that he knew the true meaning of the Bible and that everyone should follow him to Antarctica to build a Godly community? It sounds insane but to an extent that is what the Pilgrims did back in 1620.
God had a plan for those crazy Pilgrims because they defied the odds and were able to not only make it safely across the Atlantic but were also able to find a relatively safe place to live – Plymouth. The first winter, half of them died and all looked lost until they met Squanto. Squanto was previously a slave and spent time in Europe before coming back to his homeland. The Pilgrims were desperate for help with planting crops and they needed to make alliances with the local Native Americans to survive. Squanto secured both these things, and that following fall, the first Thanksgiving took place. The first Thanksgiving wasn’t called “Thanksgiving” and it wasn’t connected to any religious celebration. The Pilgrims didn’t believe in religious holidays because the Bible didn’t mention any such events – in their minds the adulterated Catholic and Anglican Church were responsible for them. No, this first celebration was a secular event that mimicked the annual harvest celebration common in England during the medieval age. The Native Americans didn’t split a big table with the Pilgrims and feast on our modern day dishes. The celebration was so large, with Native Americans far outnumbering Pilgrims, that there were several fires scattered outside that hosted small groups. Each fire was used to cook a menagerie of choice meats: wild turkey, eagle, bass, venison, shellfish, and water fowl to name a few. The day was meant to celebrate the alliance and friendship formed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.
The rest of history didn’t go so well for the Native Americans but the message of the First Thanksgiving is still vital today. America was founded on friendship and unity between all different types of people. We’re at our best when we let go of our divisions and selfishness so that we can be generous with our unique blessings. Enjoy your Thanksgiving and remember these loving attributes when your uncle starts ranting about Donald Trump.
Here are some really fun facts about Thanksgiving 🙂
- Scanto’s name, means the “Devil” or the “Dark Spirit”
- There were no utensils at the first Thanksgiving – everyone used their fingers and hunting knives
- The beverage of choice during the feast was homemade beer
- The Pilgrims believed the apocalypse was near and their settlement would usher in the “end of times”
- The Pilgrims didn’t believe in “Hymns” – instead they sang verses directly out of the Bible