Above: The author in front of 112 Mercer Street – aka The Albert Einstein House – in Princeton, New Jersey.
By Bob Houghtaling
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.” Unfortunately these words are not often heeded for reasons all too human. This piece is simply the musings of a man wandering around a beautiful college campus along with loved ones.
At a recent family vacation I had some time to visit Princeton University. While there, my stops included viewing Albert Einstein’s home and the Princeton Art Museum (where I saw one of my favorite paintings – Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates). While it was fascinating considering the likes of Socrates and Einstein, it was equally intriguing pondering over their trials and tribulations (with Athenian government and Hitler’s Nazis). Even though each are revered these days, they did fly contra to the prevailing winds blowing about their homelands.
Politics, fear, money and power can do funny things with the truth. Galileo can be put in a tower, Rosa Parks arrested, Einstein forced to flee and Socrates condemned to drink hemlock. Books get burned, fingers are pointed, and before you know it facts are turned upside-down. Sometimes telling the truth can lead to a whole lot of trouble.
We are presently living in a time when truth is under attack by personality and a vacuous need for affirmation (which makes us either susceptible or cynical).
“Until the lion becomes the historian, the hunter will always be the hero,’’ is an African proverb. It speaks to who shapes, writes and dictates a culture’s story. Our nation’s historic narrative has leaned towards white men of power. Changes have taken place over time, but still that narrative is very powerful. Speaking truth to it results in consequences – maybe not fleeing or drinking hemlock, but a little excoriation and marginalization will eventually ensue. The “backfire effect,” far too prevalent these days, often leads to some having difficulty accepting the words of those attempting to speak truth to power.
So, why did I write this? Perhaps simply to admire those who tell us the truth. Being around loved ones, especially my two grandchildren, got me to think about those existential considerations that mix love, hope and concern. Where does our culture go from here? What lessons do we still need to learn? Hopefully there will be many more such walks in our future. See you soon.
Bob Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich Drug Program.