Saturday, January 28, 2023

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

| November 14, 2010 8:00 PM

I quoted Dickens recently and am doing so again, this time the famous first line to A TALE OF TWO CITIES; published in 1859, with 200 million copies sold, it is the most printed of all original English books. Dickens' subjects were London, Paris and the French Revolution, famous and infamous for use of the guillotine. Describing chaotic times about 30 years before his birth in 1812, Dickens told an inspiring story about the best of times, the worst of times, and also sacrifice and redemption.

Dickens embraced paradox; how else can we interpret "an age of wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, Light and Darkness." Hundreds of thousands of high school students have read that opening paragraph. Some have read the entire book and know the Manettes - father and daughter - Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, Madame Defarge, notorious for her knitting, and other fascinating characters Dickens created to instruct and delight.

I visited Mexico City in 1967, informed in advance it is a city of contrast and paradox. A city block separates luxury from abject poverty, safety from insecurity, good health from Montezuma's Revenge, long life from infant mortality. Since then I have visited similar cities - Dublin and Penang, for example - and even some large cities in this country such as New York. One time, driving to see friends on the South Side of Chicago I missed my exit from the Dan Ryan Expressway. Taking the next one I backtracked to be told on arrival I had been lucky to make it safely, even though I had wandered less than a mile south of my target. I am not certain the danger was that acute; but people in big cities learn to accept paradox and contrast as parts of life. One neighborhood might be great but another, a block away, dangerous. They co-exist somehow.

I don't think we do very well in North Idaho accepting what we sometimes perceive as paradoxical. We seem to have problems with liberal patriots, gay Christians, peace loving Muslims, sober alcoholics and heterosexual AIDS patients. We do not easily accept bad neighborhoods alongside good ones or having the best of times in the same moment as the worst of times. We seem to prefer black or white to black and white and that preference is growing, not diminishing.

I have very few problems with contrasts and paradoxes; perhaps my big city upbringing helps. Some of my friends think I am an education elitist because I was a college professor; that is not true. I have known educated people who seemed bereft of wisdom; and I have seen wisdom in individuals with very little formal education. It is nice to find both wisdom and education in certain professionals - doctors, lawyers, clergy and newspaper editors, for example - but I do not expect it.

Historians might look back on 2010 in the United States of America and say, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," but more likely they will not. We probably exaggerate what we see and what we do not. I doubt either George Bush or Richard Cheney is a fascist; and I doubt that Barack Obama and Joe Biden are socialists. Rather, I suspect there is some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best. Maybe that is the lesson Dickens best imparts. When we see best or worst, wisdom or foolishness, belief or incredulity, we may be saying more about ourselves than about the outside world. Chances are the world has always been pretty black and white, the two colors co-existing rather nicely.

Tim Hunt, the son of a linotype operator, is a retired college professor and nonprofit administrator who lives in Hayden with his wife and three cats. He can be reached at

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