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by William H. Benson

September 25, 1953

     Eleven years ago on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday George Will wrote that writing his biweekly column for Newsweek over the previous many years had been the thing in his life that he most especially enjoyed; “a real kick,” he called it.  And it was reading that comment that prompted me to make a phone call and ask about writing my own biweekly column.  Now I can say after eleven years that it has been enjoyable, a real kick.

     And now it is my turn to celebrate my fiftieth birthday today, which means of the allotted three score and ten, I have completed two score and ten with another yet to go.  It is a day to reflect.

     In 1977 when George Will was only thirty-six, he admonished that year’s graduating class at San Diego University that they should live with a crick in their neck, figuratively speaking, a crick in their neck from looking backward at what happened and what was thought in the past.”That may not be a heroic posture,” he said, “but it is prudent.  After all most new knowledge is false.”

     I have tried to follow that sage, if not startling, advice when writing this column, for I have looked backward at what was said and written and done in the not too distant past, coming up every two weeks with a crick-in-the neck column.  Harry Truman said that the only thing new in this world is the history you have not yet learned.  I teach history when I write.

     Eleven years ago I wondered if I would eventually run dry, out of things to write about, but now I find myself discarding more ideas than those that I put down on paper.  The Muses have been kind and not yet drifted away to pay attention to someone else.

     Why continue to write a column?  Harold Bloom, the Yale literary critic, likes to quote Rabbi Tarphon from The Sayings of the Fathers, who said, “It is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  That same attitude prods some of us to get up, drive to work, think, and act, and then, when we find the time, write.   

     And then there is the element of surprise, the spice of life.  Like a serendipitious turn, it happens when the words and the ideas fall together, or we meet a new and interesting person with a different story, or we pick up a book with ideas that we have never thought before.  That moment of surprise, or that tingle of anticipation that the surprise will happen, like receiving an unopened birthday present, is one reason why people step out the door and face the day.

     In the Middle English language Geoffrey Chaucer described that sense of surprise in the “Knight’s Tale” in Canterbury Tales:  “It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene, for al day meeteth men at unset steven.”  Translated into modern English, it reads:  “It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.”

     We, the living, are travelers on the road to Canterbury, and we each have a story to tell.  It is a prudent and wise thing to listen to others’ stories, which Chaucer advised, “For truly, joy or comfort is there none to ride along the road dumb as a stone.”  In those dual acts of moving and listening, a person is constantly keeping appointments one never made.  Surprise happens.

     A last reflection.  Some peoples’ stories are very bad, filled with trouble and lies and deceit and treachery–the 673rd episode of a poorly-produced soap opera.  To actually live such a life a person must suffer a series of heart-wrenching experiences, but if that same life is then played out on the stage or on screen or written into a novel, it can make for great entertainment.

     Then, other peoples’ stories are very good and responsible and wholeseome, filled with peace and harmony and love, but they would prove very poor entertainment if seen on a stage or written into a book.  We will defer to the psychologists to answer “how can this be?”

     Today begins another decade of life, my sixth, another segment on that road traveling to Canterbury, listening and finding surprise in other peoples’ stories, and there is a crick in my neck from looking backwards at the past, at the older events and ideas and people.  And I cannot desist from that work, even though I know it will not be completed, for there are many appointments to keep which I have not even made.