When I was a teacher, I tried everything to engage my often less-than-enthused middle school students in the art of studying the past. But if I’m going to be honest, teaching history was a thorn. One particular stroke of genius, however, that I used year in and year out, was to promote the idea of having an “historical crush”- a figure in history that one dreamed of having lunch with, asking him/her intriguing questions and getting thoughtful responses in return, someone you might look up to or aspire to be like, someone you wanted to learn more about, someone you might admire for things like courage or a strong voice or intelligence that did good, or even brute power that wound up dominating an era.
My students quickly learned (and often enjoyed joking about) my historical crush- Ben Franklin. For middle school students, the concept of “crush” being paired with a rather ugly, stout, old man was something that brought at least mild amusement to their faces, and (hopefully) some natural intrigue that led to a little bit of learning.
Recently, a holiday conversation reminded me of my historical crush, and how lately I haven’t given him even a passing thought (sorry Ben). With that in mind, coupled with the obligatory New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve decided to look at the upcoming year in a new way. Instead of making promises that look good on paper, or when verbalized to friends, but in reality are quickly forgotten or abandoned, I’ve decided to focus on a person whom I might aspire to be more like- someone that would be a constant reminder of how I might live my everyday, mundane existence in a better, more productive way. And that person happens to be Ben Franklin.
Ok, ok, I fully understand that the astute reader might immediately wonder why a bald, fat man known for over eating, over drinking and womanizing might somehow provide a framework from which a modern wife and mother might use as a life model. But let’s, for a moment, overlook some of his obvious flaws, and instead focus on the ideal that he, himself, created in his autobiography. In fact, the very first thing that draws me to Mr. Franklin is the fact that he was witty enough to write his own biography before others got to it first, so as to create for all posterity the image of a man he wished he could have been. That’s brilliant! And if you really want to get a full understanding of who Ben was, I encourage you to start by reading his autobiography. You can get it FREE here.
Now, without further ado, let me probe in to the many reasons why, in 2015, I resolve to live more like Ben:
- Ben liked lists. I happen to be the queen of lists. To put this in perspective, sometimes I do something, AND THEN put the thing on a list, just so I can cross it off. And sometimes I have duplicate lists in different rooms of the house. And sometimes I start and finish my day with lists. And sometimes most times my husband and closest friends make fun of my obsession with lists. Ben loved lists too. In fact, he created his whole life plan around lists. To explain, just keep reading.
- Ben ascribed to a set of virtues (in list form) that I think are worth endorsing. Everyday. Every hour. What’s more, he readily admitted that he fell short of these virtues regularly, but he never abandoned them. He rotated his focus of these virtues weekly, so as to spend more time on one virtue over the others, so he could master each, one at a time. Each of these virtues still has weight and relevancy today:
- TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- 11.TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
- Ben was a little good at a lot of things. We all know Ben discovered electricity and invented bi-focals, sure. But Ben dabbled in so much more. He was a scientist, musician, author, publisher, and statesman, in addition to being an inventor. Each of his “inventions” was a reflection of his constant curiosity and drive to understand the misunderstood. He invented the lightening rod, thus greatly diminishing devastating lightening-induced fires. He mapped the Atlantic Gulf Stream out of pure wonder in why his eastward trips to Europe took less time than his return trips. He invented swim fins to help himself beat his brother in a swim contest. He even invented a musical instrument. The point here is this: I need to be curious and never let time, stress or everyday inconveniences stop me from discovering new things about the world and new ways of living my life fully.
- Ben believed in Civic Duty. We are all placed here on earth at a particular time for a particular reason. We have a choice to live life in a selfish, narcissistic way, or to discover ways to make the world better and to do good for others, even if it saps us of our personal time, energy and wealth. Ben was the ultimate civilian. He used his own resources and that of others to develop various programs for the good of his community. He developed the first public library in all of America. He created the first public hospital where anyone, regardless of status, could find access to care. He planned the first public fire company that revolutionized the way communities fought fires. At the young age of 21, he organized the Junto- a group of like-minded men that pooled their knowledge and talents to debate and hopefully solve the pressing issues of their time. He was the only “Founding Father” who was present and signed all major documents that led to our independence from England, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He never sought public patents for any of his inventions, thus ensuring his ideas were readily accessible to anyone. In almost every aspect of his adult life, Ben put others, his community and his country before himself, often at the expense of his own well being.
- Ben gives us ready-to-use advice that almost never fails. He often spoke and wrote in anecdotal form, passing along clever, usable advice in short, easy-to-understand-and-remember aphorisms. He wrote hundreds of these phrases over his lifetime, providing us with go-to counsel for almost every situation. Click here for a website that categorizes his quotes in a way that allows you to find advice easily for almost all of life’s conundrums. Here are a few of my favorites:
- An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.
- Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterward.
- Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame.
- Love your enemies for they tell you your faults.
- Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
- Lost time is never found again.
- Well done is better than well said.
- Does thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.
- It’s easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.
- Ben planned each day thoughtfully and easily so as to be most productive (and…surprise…he did it in list form). Now that I am not fully employed, I find that I am busy most days in the art of doing nothing. That makes me sound lazy, but what I mean is that most days I find myself running around crazy getting very little accomplished, so by mid week I am already stressed, burned out and very much behind. As I begin to live more like Ben, I intend to internalize his method of daily living (see #1 above). Ben created a daily list that was general enough to encompass almost all of life’s tasks, yet specific enough to keep him focused. He woke with the daily question of “What good shall I do today?” and ended his day reflecting on “What good have I done today?” In between, he organized his waking hours in such a way as to keep focused on all of life’s tasks efficiently. And so I bought this:
And intend to keep a daily list much like Ben’s, which looked exactly like this:
- Finally, Ben made room in his life for fun. Much has been written about the way Ben lived his actual life and the persona he created in his autobiography. Many contemporaries chastised Ben for preaching a certain lifestyle, but living a much different one, especially when he lived in Paris. In early adulthood, he fathered a child out of wedlock. While in Paris, he was known for his crude jokes, partying ways and friskiness with the ladies. Even while serving in monumental roles such as at the Constitutional Convention, Ben was known for his jovial sense of humor and off-the-cuff sarcasm. Rather than label the man a hypocrite, I’d much rather like to label the man “real”. There’s a time and place for seriousness and righteous living, just like there’s always room to let your hair down and have some fun. So, in 2015, as I look to Ben for firm advice on proper day-to-day living, I’ll also forgive myself for straying from my resolve, and I’ll allow myself time for pure enjoyment and fun, without the guilt.
To close, for 2015 and beyond, let me say this,
“Thank you, Ben, for helping me with my 2015 New Year’s Resolution. It won’t be another list of to-do’s or don’ts that never quite become reality. Nope, not this time around. Instead, I choose to keep you, Ben, as a role model for healthy, inspiring living, day in and day out. You’ll be my go-to person that will challenge me to live life better and to its fullest capacity, to do good for others and my community, while forgiving myself when I fall short. Here’s to living my life like Ben!”