A Season for Second Chances
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | Dec. 17, 2022
“Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.” —Thomas Jefferson
As 2022 draws mercifully to a close, putting to rest yet another annus mirabilis, it is customary to pause, peer back at the year in repose, make new plans, then promptly forget them.
Good intentions often evaporate like vapors. But this time, it will be different, you promise. This time you will become a better version of yourself. You’ve done this so many times before that you have perfected the two-step that keeps you stuck in a place where nothing ever changes, least of all, yourself.
But suppose that this year, for once, you follow through? Suppose you approach these New Year plans with a renewed sense of purpose and a belief in second chances? By now you should realize that the way to lasting change and personal development is incremental, consistent, humble, persistent effort.
You return again and again to Emerson’s observation that, if you look long and hard enough, you can learn something from everyone you meet; everyone is better than you at something. These constant musings bring you, somewhat reluctantly, to the original Doubting Thomas: Thomas Jefferson, the man of many inconsistent faces.
Thomas spent his life seeking moral clarity and spiritual guidance. It might not seem that way to you. He did, after all, “own” slaves, and he used his late wife’s 13-year-old half-sister to replenish his dwindling supply of free laborers. How can it be said that such a man, a man guilty of the most heinous of transgressions, was, in the end, a moral and spiritual seeker?
The third president of the United States had a secret, which, like so much else, is missing from the history books. This secret dominated the waning days of his life in the White House and continues to speak to us across space and time.
Jefferson was a great moral equivocator, an eloquent writer, and a deep thinker who declared all people to be created equal, except those he owned and slept with. But that’s not the end of his story, not all that he was. In many ways he was very much like Walt Whitman, who wrote in Leaves of Grass: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
But Jefferson was no different than you and I in that respect. His moral failings may have been immense; but, perhaps guided by his moral failings, he sought understanding in a book. And that book was the Bible.
Given his towering ego, he didn’t simply try to read and understand the Bible—he sought to rewrite it. Unbeknown to even his closest confidants, Jefferson reduced the Bible to an 84-page text, reflecting the mind of a man who spent much of his life grappling with, alternatively doubting, then rejecting religion in the traditional sense.
Working alone in the White House in 1804, Jefferson decided to edit the Gospels, to uncover the essence hidden in the simple story of Jesus’ life. Jefferson had long believed that the authentic lessons of Jesus could only be uncovered if we rid ourselves of miracles like the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, and The Resurrection. What would be left? This: Jesus’ ethical lessons of love, reverence, tolerance of others, harmonious relations, and forgiveness.
Using a razor and scissors, Jefferson removed miracles such as turning water into wine and walking on water. Instead, he focused on the moral teachings and truths expressed without the assistance of the supernatural powers of God. Jefferson then pasted together only those passages that made sense to him and which conformed to the natural laws of nature. What was left were 84 pages that reflected the mind of a man who spent several years questioning religious doctrine.
What does Jefferson’s secret work say to us today? Well, I own a copy of this text. Reading it convinces me that no matter how much you think you know, no matter how flawed you are, you can profit from a life of searching for the “truth” and imagining what constitutes a good life.
Growth is eternal, and it lies not in the worship of the supernatural, the belief in rituals, magic, and otherworldly events. Rather, it lies in the mundane capacity for personal growth and development, in finding ways to be of service to others. It lies also in trying to learn from our past mistakes and refusing to stand in judgment of others.
And if it means questioning our most passionately held beliefs, do it. Jefferson was not perfect, and neither are you. His “sins” are too numerous to enumerate here. But he seems to have spent his life questioning his own moral and spiritual leanings.
Now that’s a resolution you can keep.
Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.