Last week I escorted a 30 pound bronze duck through airport security on what might prove to be its last flight.
Tranquility was my favorite of Franklin’s virtues. I felt quite self-satisfied with my efforts in its pursuit. I have always felt that I, like Franklin, have possessed an “evenness of temper” and “cheerfulness in conversation”. Despite this I took positive steps to enhance my tranquility during the course of virtues. In other circumstances I might write further about my experiences. Sometimes, though, slogans and platitudes on posters are simply not enough.
I lost a family member two weeks ago. Aunt Karen, the second wife of my long deceased great uncle, was a Holocaust survivor. Her maternal grandmother and all of her mother’s siblings died in a concentration camp and, at one, point she watched as her father (who was a Lutheran) was taken away by the Gestapo. Thankfully he was later released.
After the war Karen and her parents immigrated to Canada where she became a hairdresser, earned two university degrees and eventually taught English as a second language. She found happiness in a new country and, ultimately, love with my great uncle. Despite this, I recently learned that she awoke with nightmares and suffered from long term health problems due to her experiences. It is easy to suggest to someone to be tranquil in situations where the things that might disturb that tranquility are, as Ben described them, “…trifles” or “…accidents common or unavoidable”. How does one maintain the virtue of tranquility, however, in the face of soldiers dragging your parent from you or the murder of your grandmother?
As part of my duties as executor (and sole beneficiary) I went through box after box of my aunt’s possessions, separating those that had significance and meaning from those that were just the day to day detritus of life. As I went through the boxes, a friend of my aunts who had been helping her write her life story sent me an email with the subject line: Don’t chuck the duck!
The duck in question was a life size bronze fowl sitting atop a marble base. It was remarkably heavy and I found it in the very last box through which I sorted.
The email went on to tell me that the duck had immigrated with my aunt and her family and had stayed with them through their lives. The duck had passed to Karen upon the death of her mother. According to her friend it was the only material thing in which she had expressed any interest. It was, as her friend described to me, special to her. I wondered if the duck and its association to her family’s survival was a totem for her own tranquility. Did it signify the triumph of hope in the face of great trial?
I also wondered how the duck was going to get back to my home. I did not want to ship him or put him in my luggage. The duck, given what I had learned, had taken on an importance that far exceeded its material value. Indeed, I had developed an almost irrational and immediate attachment to the duck. My aunt’s family line died with her but they would survive on in my family in the form of cold cast bronze. It was not going to leave my sight.
Hence, my trip through airport security with a duck in my carry-on luggage. As might be expected, its appearance on the x-ray machine prompted a thorough search of my bag along with some questions about the duck. A last minute flight cancellation necessitated a nightlong delay and a second pass through security (same result, same questions).
Eventually the duck made it home with me and now sits proudly on the island in our kitchen watching over our house. I am not sure what it represented to my great aunt, but to me it represents survival, the continuation of a family and tranquility in the face of hardship.
Ben Franklin created his course of virtues when he was a young man. He had not yet faced the trials of personal, business or political life that must surely have tested him, but he credited part of his success in those to his ability to be tranquil. Perhaps the secret to Ben’s tranquility is learning what is important and what is not. It is about distinguishing the trifles from the real tribulations and finding peace and hope in the midst of the latter. Every time I look at the duck I will remember that lesson.