This August, I re-read one of my all time favorite novels, R. F. Delderfield’s “To Serve Them All My Days.” It is, for me, something of a sacred text – one from which I draw new meaning and new inspiration at each re-reading.
“To Serve Them All My Days” is the story of World War I veteran David Powlett-Jones, the scholarly son of a Welsh mining family who emerges shell-shocked from three years on the Western Front. Sent by an Army psychiatrist to interview for a position teaching history at a private school in Devonshire, David overcomes his class prejudices, finds his life’s work, and – at the end of two decades – becomes headmaster.
David’s personal and professional story is set against a larger, historical canvass. As a student of history, he can only watch in growing horror as Britain’s political leaders – fearful of a second war – make precisely the mistakes which assure its coming. By the novel’s end, Hitler is on the march, and David has begun recording names of “old boys” who have fallen in the Second World War.
There are many reasons I love this novel. Besides identifying with another history teacher, I greatly admire its Arnoldian principles, with their emphasis on character, teamwork and leadership.
But with this re-reading, I related most strongly to the historical portrait of Britain’s refusal to face the reality of Adolf Hitler until it was very nearly too late. Perhaps it is inevitable that democracies will inevitably postpone facing up to looming threats until they can no longer be avoided. Certainly, this was the case with Britain in the 1930’s.
It appears to be the case with America in 2011. By now, most Americans are coming to grips with many challenges brought on by our leaders’ negligence: looming Federal deficits, including those of Social Security and Medicare; an expensive, aimless educational system; dangerously degraded infrastructure; the loss of our domestic manufacturing capacity, etc.
From my perspective, none of these problems compares with the nexus of problems relating to world population growth, over-dependence on dwindling stores of fossil fuels, and global climate change. For, unlike the other problems, these problems of sustainability have not yet registered with the average American – much as the threat of Hitler failed to enter the awareness of the average Briton until his Panzers began streaking into Poland.
Of course, there are those among us who are already awake to these. But being part of an awakened minority can be, as Winston Churchill repeatedly learned, a thankless task. The question is: Until the rest wake up, as they inevitably will, what does one do?
Do you risk the indignation of the majority by constantly sounding an alarm no one wishes to heed? Or do you pipe down, reserving the right to say “I told you so” when your neighbors belatedly come around?
One possible option is that afforded by Transition US, the national branch of a global movement planning for the day when Americans wake up to the need for a new, more sustainable economy and lifestyle. Transition US chapters work locally, through study groups and planning committees, devising the plans which will – in the course of time – enable their communities to adjust to emerging realities.
It’s all rather reminiscent of Churchill’s private brain trust of scholars, scientists and back-benchers, through which he planned to fight a war his contemporaries refused to foresee. Or like the seminars taught by the fictional David Powlett-Jones, through which he prepared his young charges for the war they would have to fight.
The nearest branch of Transition US is in Staunton, Va. We should have one here, in Chesterfield. But until we do, I intend to find the time to visit Transition Staunton-Augusta and learn more about what they’re up to. In case anyone wants to ride along…
It’s never too soon to prepare for the future. And often, too late.