In the bleakest of winters, what is a wise man to do?


In the bleak of midwinter

One of the most time-honored traditions of historians is the exaggeration of weather conditions for dramatic effect. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is often described as having been conducted in the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer, when in fact the summer of 1787 was unseasonably cool. From most historical accounts, one would conclude that the winter of 1777-1778 was a return to the ice age for Washington’s men at Valley Forge, when in fact that winter was mild and included little snowfall. And so it is that when historians write about the winter of 2008-2009, they will undoubtedly exaggerate the climactic misfortunes of the season.

Weather, as it turns out, is merely a historical proxy for the mood of a people-impassioned in 1787, hopeless in 1777, unforgiving in 2008-2009. As debates over trillion-dollar stimulus packages rage in D.C., many Americans, including the wise men of Harvard Law School, are wondering what their mission should be in this, the bleakest of winters.

Last November, the BBC asked music directors in the U.K. and U.S. to select the greatest holiday songs of all time. The consensus winner was In The Bleak Midwinter, written by 19th Century English poet Christina Rossetti (Silent Night, Ding Dong Merrily on High, and Once in Royal David’s City were the closest competitors).

Rossetti penned In The Bleak Midwinter in response to a request from Scribner’s Monthly for a Christmas poem. The poem, first published in 1904, ten years after Rossetti’s death, is an account of the birth of Christ in which Rossetti ponders what each man, woman, and child can offer the Son of God. She writes, “What can I give him, Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.” Rossetti likely did not consider many other occupations for her poem, given the unique presence of the shepherd in the Biblical story. However, Rossetti surely could have added many more bountiful offerings from other trades. Blacksmiths could bring tools, tailors clothes, farmers the bounty of their land, and so on.

However, Rossetti, once again constricted by the Biblical account, struggled to determine what exactly the wise men were to offer. The self-declared Wise Men of the modern age-Harvard Law School faculty and students included-can surely understand her difficulty. After all, wise men can’t make much of anything and we tend not to be too skillful with tools. Truth be told, we know a lot about a little and nothing about so much more.Despite the wise man’s general ineptitude, Rossetti gave him a great command which is, to this day, our burden: “If I were a wise man,” she wrote, “I would do my part.” Notably, unlike the tradesmen or the shepherd, Rossetti did not mention that wise men should give anything. Gold, frankincense, or myrrh would not be enough. HLSers may bemoan this omission, given that if there is one thing graduates are sure to have, it is the proverbial riches of the Kings of the Orient.

At the same time, Rossetti’s unique demand that we do something as opposed to bring something indicates her understanding that the fruits of the wise man’s labor are not to be found in material creations, but in service to our fellow men. Rossetti isn’t going to let us buy out our obligations to the world. We must do our part, collectively.To do our part, we need not quarrel in an interminable guessing game about what is right and good. Instead, Rossetti, ever a believer in the inherent goodness of the human soul, reassures us that doing our part is as easy as “[giving] one’s heart.” Of course, while this command permits many manifestations of the good, it is not morally neutral. Just as the Wise Men were to give their hearts in the service of the Son of God, so we are expected to give of ourselves to the world, in so doing sacrificing personal comforts for the benefit of the less fortunate.

Many of us are rapidly approaching what some might term the bleak mid-winter of life: that frightening forty years between the bliss of books and eternal respite brought on by brittle bones. The pain of lost high school loves, disappointing grades, and being called out by professors before one’s peers will undoubtedly be dwarfed by the cold realities of this changing of the seasons. The pains of the working man’s life-self-doubt, existential crisis, the temptations of nihilism and self-love-stand in the way of Rossetti’s command.

Nevertheless, it is the mid-winter of life that holds the true body of a person’s work. It is the time where Rossetti’s command can best be fulfilled. Do our part we must, in this the bleakest of winters, and in the mid-winter of our lives.

Andrew L. Kalloch is a 3L and Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Record

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