My Grandpa Harold is more useful than Thoreau, hands down
January 11, 2010 —
This year, in an effort to start a tradition, a group of friends and I held the First Annual 24-Hour Read-AThon at 408 Dillon Street in Sault Ste. Marie. Our excitement led to dozens of dollars spent on feasting materials and fine brews and an entire Sunday spent preparing the grub on which we intended to simultaneously gorge ourselves while reading.
But lo! Due to multiple tragic events, our guest list of fourteen was reduced to a scant five. And so we five huddled around the fire with too much feast and plenty of brew to read this year’s selection: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I include the selection of this book in the list of tragedies that reduced the guest list, but even so we experienced a deep philosophical journey that was worth having (it only took us 13 hours to finish; had it been 24 I might think it wasn’t worth it.) I have no intention of this column being as boring as the book itself. No, this column is about my Grandpa Harold, a great American, an international man of mystery, and one who has not let life slip by consumed in mediocre moments. As I write of my grandparents, I found something that Thoreau said that offends the existence of grandparents and the mechanism by which civilization perpetuates itself.
Claims Thoreau, “I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose.” This is hubris at its best, and I would think that anybody that arrogant would not be missed after they tromped off into the woods. But I feel sorry for him, because it is very clear that he must not have had grandparents. While I am often frustrated with the effect of old people on progress trying to be made by young people, I also realize that those same geezers were once young people responsible for progress.
I can think of one lesson in particular that I learned from experience and not from somebody wiser than me on the subject. I was attempting to salvage a bit of rope from a massive jumbled knot on a tire swing in my back yard, and as I chose the section which I thought would not compromise the structure of the tire swing, Grandpa Harold warned me that cutting that section from the knot would be catastrophic. I didn’t believe him at the time, but from my position 30 seconds later on my back with a cartoonlike cloud of dust around me, it was hard to contend the he was right. What I learned from that experience was that wisdom takes time to acquire, and some degree of credibility should be granted to those folks who have more time to acquire it.
If I had realized at the time the profoundness of my grandfather’s experience, I may have paid him more attention, but I was too unwise to understand wisdom. Harold Bergsma grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, the son of a doctor who had recorded the highest score in the country on his medical exam before going to work as a missionary for two decades. Harold acquired a PhD in international education and went to work in multiple countries including Nigeria. His passport has seen the stamp of more than 60 countries, he has always lived to his means and saved money, he has a display in the Chicago Museum of Natural History for an exhibition he accompanied to Nepal when he was 19 years old, he has published several books including a trilogy, and he know lives in 24th-floor condo on Pacific Highway overlooking San Diego Bay. But I thought he was wrong about the tire swing.
What is most impressive about my grandfather is that he still is learning. In his late seventies, diagnosed with cancer a second time, he is a sponge of new ideas and information. When a person stops learning, they stop really living. They convert themselves from a living, breathing being into a statue that stands impenetrable, only interacting with the universe to the extent that it takes up space. When I found out my grandpa had terminal cancer last year, he was in Guatemala. In November, he was frolicking around Turkey and Spain. In August, the final book of his trilogy was released. He doesn’t waste a second lamenting that eventually time will kill us all. He just continues to soak in the world, displaying a defiant middle finger to the figure with the shadowy hood. He lives a more meaningful life now than Thoreau did in his late 20s, and anyone could learn more in a 20-minute conversation with Harold than they could in the 13 hours it takes to read Walden out loud.