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It Was the Best of Times, A Father’s Day Greeting from Dickens

by Jay Reeves |

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Within that opening line to A Tale of Two Cities lies the secret to a long and happy Law Life.

The twelve simple words – none of which exceed five letters – hold the power to nourish and sustain us no matter how disruptive, divisive and downright dreadful our circumstances.

The famous quote has become a cliché. It has prompted a thousand awful student essays. Some of us were even forced by Mrs. Pugh in junior high to memorize the entire, lengthy first paragraph and recite it to our heckling classmates.

And although Dickens was writing more than 150 years ago about a period of great darkness, division and revolution, his words ring just as true today. They remind us to keep things in perspective. Don’t judge or compare. Practice acceptance.

Those are important lessons for us all in this Year After COVID.

It Was the Age of Wisdom, It Was the Age of Foolishness

My father was a big believer in keeping things in perspective. Also: regular exercise, taking life as it comes, staying positive, and the opening line from A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he said when I came home moaning about the tyrannical Mrs. Pugh and her oral recitation requirement. “There. I just taught you the first part. Now go learn the rest.”

In 1971, my father was a guest speaker at my school. He began his talk with the Dickens quote. I was sixteen, and times were turbulent. While I would never suggest my childhood resembled the French Revolution, I will say that even in the swampy backwater of Kingstree, South Carolina the earth was shaking because of Vietnam, civil rights protests, Watergate, political assassinations, and the other social turmoil of the day.

Closer to home, the county’s public schools were in the tumultuous process of desegregating, and my father, a deputy school superintendent, was in the thick of things.

It Was the Epoch of Belief, It Was the Epoch of Incredulity

Then again, my father liked being in the thick of things. He was one of the town’s most visible citizens, having been a teacher, coach, principal, administrator, election commissioner, volunteer fireman and local newspaper columnist, and serving on practically every board, panel and commission in existence.

All this leadership made him a sought-after public speaker. The fact that he was good at it made him a popular one.

And so 50 years ago almost to this day, he walked onstage in the gymnasium at the sparkling new, racially integrated Kingstree Senior High School – created when the former Kingstree High (whose student body was almost completely white) and Tomlinson High (almost completely black) were consolidated – and where I sat in the stands with my classmates, half of whom I knew and half of whom were basically strangers.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” said my father that day.

And he didn’t just quote the first line. He read the entire 119-word opening paragraph, followed by brief, upbeat comments on keeping things in perspective and the importance of regular exercise.

We Had Everything Before Us, We Had Nothing Before Us

Not once during the 78 years my father was alive did I walk into a room and find him in a downward-dog pose. Never would he have considered himself a mystic, nor did he toss around words like nonjudgment, mindfulness and duality thinking.

And there’s no chance he would have paid money to attend a workshop called “Embracing Radical Acceptance.”

Which I did, gladly, some years ago. In the course materials was a page of inspiring quotes on acceptance. One of the first quotes was – wait for it – the opening to A Tale of Two Cities.

Nothing just happens. We can call it coincidence, but there are always connections.

And so this Father’s Day – to honor the man I think of and miss daily – I will take the worn book from the shelf and read those first 119 words, and then I’ll skip to the end and read the last two lines, as he did a half century ago.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” 

Jay Reeves has practiced law and done some other things over the years. His favorite Dickens novel is Great Expectations. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World and runs Your Law Life LLC, where he is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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