The university that employs me pays me once a month. At the beginning of this month – a month that includes Christmas, by the way – I received over $400 less than I usually do. I called up and heard this detailed explanation: “It must have been a mistake.” No apologies or offers to correct the mistake. Enjoy the Holiday. Yours, Uncle Ebenezer.
The woman on the other end said someone would call me back. No one did. So I called a second time and heard (1) that someone would call me back (they never seem to get tired of that line) and (2) that the mistake would be corrected at the end of December. But I checked online this morning and found out that my next paycheck doesn’t include any correction or bonus. So I looked the office up to see if I could find a name of someone in charge that I could send an email to. But I found only lists of offices and phone numbers. The Human Resources department doesn’t lay claim to any humans.
Words have such great power. You know what they say: sticks and stones just break my bones, but words can really hurt me. OK, well, that’s what they ought to say, because that’s the real truth. The words from the Human Resources object (it doesn’t consist of people, so let’s just call it an object) don’t merely convey or fail to convey information. They reach out through the phone and through the computer screen, grab me, and put me in my place. I am an irrelevant nuisance trying to insinuate myself between the Payroll division of the Human Resources object and its mission, which apparently doesn’t include the payrolling of my $400.
So I started thinking about my reading plan along these lines, pondering what the books I read this year did to me, what position they put me in. Calvin for instance, by consistently taking a polemical tone and throwing insulting names at people who disagree with him, makes me an adversary. I want to learn about his theological system and would love to enjoy agreeing with him. But instead, he leaves me only two choices: kneel in fear before his lightning-filled fist, or stand up in defiance. And I’m just not much of a kneeler. (If The Avengers were true, I’d be that corny guy who stands up to Loki.)
Dickens, to take the opposite extreme, makes mankind my business. He assembles the human family – sweet nieces, swaggering uncles, eccentric aunts, brave cousins, senile grandfathers, good Samaritans, black sheep, and all – and drops me right in the middle of their holiday party. While and just after reading a Dickens novel, every person I meet comes from his world; he makes me more sympathetic and the world more worthy of sympathy. From Dickens I learn to love people I wouldn’t give much thought to in my usual world.
Aquinas buys me a ticket and welcomes me right onto his train of thought. Even when I don’t completely agree with him, I just keep riding along because the comfortable line runs on schedule, and because I know his train takes me to my destination. Trollope draws me into his sitting room, sits me down by his fire, and talks to me intimately about his favorite people and his most cherished beliefs. While I read his words, I am the close friend of a wise moral teacher. Greene turns my heart inside out and exposes some dark, festering corners to the healing influences of the light and the air. Charles Williams turns the world inside out and reveals the spiritual power behind every object, thought, and cultural mannerism. And Aristotle makes me an eager student, thirsty for knowledge.
Well, even if mankind isn’t the business of Human Resources (despite the name), it is my business. So I’ll end today by calling it a department again and wishing its unidentified people a Merry Christmas. Then while I wait until that office opens up again in January, I’ll just read a couple more books.