But dreams come slow and they go so fast
You see her when you close your eyes
Maybe one day you’ll understand why
Everything you touch surely dies
–Let Her Go, Passenger
I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello with my family the other day. It was absolutely amazing. We browsed the many hands-on exhibits, marveled over the iconic entrance, filed through the house looking at all the furniture and appointments, peered through his stacks of books in the library, gazed up at all the artwork on the walls, imagined ourselves sleeping in his nook bed, looked out over Albemarle County from the pavilion, walked the gardens and vineyards, wandered the kitchen thinking about how much work it took to feed his guests, smelled the flowers on the front lawn, looked at the slave homes on the outskirts of the site, and paused by the graveyard on the way out. As a politician, architect, writer, thinker, horticulturist, arborist, designer, lawyer, scientist, optimist, and (to cut the list short) general humanist, Jefferson had no equal from his day to ours. He played an irreplaceable role in the founding of the United States of America and the establishment of a society based upon the idea of human freedom. His ideas on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness shaped generations of pioneers and dreamers who built what has become by many measures the greatest country on the face of the earth.
When you look at the opportunities that are available to a human being in their lifespan, Thomas Jefferson was probably able to enjoy a broader spectrum than anyone else ever did. He was tall and good-looking and highly relational. He was very well read and could converse easily on any subject with any person, from a laborer shoveling dirt to a craftsman shaping an architectural ornament to a statesman putting together a piece of legislation to a rider putting a horse through his paces. He entered into the political fray as a dedicated public servant and formidable contender for office, at high personal cost to the many relationships he maintained throughout his life. Jefferson moved through his 18th-century world like a shooting star, many decades ahead of his time, collecting beauty and meaning around his orb of purpose and achievement at an astounding rate. It would not be inaccurate to describe his life as easily one of the most enviable ever lived.
And yet, there was another side to the life of Thomas Jefferson. There was a dark shadow at Monticello that has not been ignored by its caretakers and cannot be escaped by its visitors. Mulberry Row, the place where the enslaved people lived and maintained their workshops, towers over the rest of the manicured estate in its silent condemnation. How was it that a man who dedicated his life so unreservedly to the liberation of the human mind could derive his subsistence from the forced labors of 200 other human beings? Why would someone who was so widely admired and trusted engage in an illicit affair and father six children with a woman considered under the law to be his “property”? And – perhaps most incredible of all – how did the Monticello estate fail so rapidly after his death? He died about $2.5M in debt in today’s dollars, which the family had to immediately sell off much of his cherished property to pay. For all his great accomplishments, Jefferson’s was a personal legacy that could not even endure for one single generation after him. He had dived deep and lived life to the fullest only to see it all crumble away behind him.
For all his qualities, Thomas Jefferson was not unique. Every person is born with just as innate a sense of worth and wonder as he had. We lose that sense because of our environments, experiences, and temperaments; but it was once there. And feeling that, we all move through this world of unutterable beauty like awed children in a museum.
We browse the many different ways that a person can interpret life through feeling: the lifegiving sun on our skin, the touch of someone’s hand, the unforgiving coldness of a stone wall, the warmth of a blanket. We marvel over the shapes that reappear throughout our journey: the ubiquitous circle of the sun and the moon and the round bowl of the sky above us, the exquisite spiral of a sunflower or a nautilus shell, the meandering serpentine of a river or of a mountain trail. We file through the halls of antiquity looking at all the elegance and quirkiness that speaks to the taste of those who went before us. We peer through the vast array of codified knowledge and learning that now belongs to the ages; sometimes we are changed by it, sometimes not.
We gaze up at the most poignant and telling artistic portrayals of beauty ever seen, that pierce our hearts so completely with truth, and then fill us with longing for it. We find a cozy corner of the universe to stop and rest for a few precious moments. We are astonished at the vast landscape that is sometimes revealed, and feel the power of its scope. We walk the tilled earth and taste of its fruits, and reflect that we came from dust, and to dust we will return. We toil and work, achieving momentary pleasure from the achievement, and then the dinner is over and the guests have left. We stop and we bend over a flower to enter into the sense of its delicate beauty. We see those less fortunate (is that the right word? should we instead say those less deluded, or those more burdened?) than ourselves, and ponder why it is that they have been allowed to touch so much less than we.
And at the end of our journey, we all must pause at the graveyard. The River Jordan opens its silent arms to us, and we are enveloped in that final quietness of death, and the pride of life vanishes away like mist on the hilltop; and we breathe our last. A hope of eternal glory, a soul that awaits the Resurrection, and the legacy we leave – either of love or of vanity – is in the end all that remains.
There was a great curse put on mankind, once in a garden, amid the pursuit of broken beauty and the loss of innocence, betrayal and tears, judgment and exile. In the wake of that terrible pronouncement, You will surely die, there was yet an echo of a mighty hope, from One Who loved us more than His very self:
Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
And as we wander east of there, feeling only what our shattered senses can tell us, let us in hopeful faith touch His precious hands and side; and perceiving that dream that is more true than anything we have known in this life, let us never doubt again.