The piece of paper taped to the outside of my door had just two words scrawled upon it: “Call home.”
That was not an easy thing to do. I was attending the University of Lancaster in England as part of a study abroad program, and in 1983 international phone calls were difficult to place. The only phone available for that purpose was on the other side of campus. I set off down the stairs and through the rainy, midwinter night until I located the phone. I dug in my pocket for some change and dialed the number. My mom answered the phone. “I have some bad news,” she said. “Your grandpa just passed away.”
In times of loss we want to gather together with friends and family, to reassure one another that we are not alone. We still have one another, and we have our shared memories, and in that way our loved one is still with us.
But when you are all alone, the loss is just an empty hole. There is no consolation in unshared memory.
I walked back to my room. The rain had slowed to a light drizzle. It was after midnight and the place was empty. It was like the entire world had dissolved into nothing and only darkness remained.
I was looking down at the sidewalk, stepping carefully around the puddles, thinking about my grandpa. When he was in his thirties he suffered a stroke, and it took him a long time to recover the ability to speak. Decades later, the only words that came easily to him were phrases he had repeated over and over: “Daylight in the swamp;” “Swim like a feather, dive like a stone;” “I’ve got more time than money.”
The last words he said to me before I left were “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
I was thinking about that day and those words, feeling as lonely and alone as a person can feel, when something on the sidewalk caught my attention—a small round object shining in the light of a street lamp. I reached down and picked it up. It was a plastic penny.
I stood there for a long time, still alone, but no longer lonely. I had been given a gift, a small reassurance that my grandpa was not lost to me. The things he had taught me, the words he had shared, would remain and continue to guide me. Despite his absence, he was somehow closer now than he had ever been.
I have been thinking about that plastic penny ever since. Its significance seems even greater now than what I understood at the time.
My grandpa had been born in 1902. He came of age in a time of wood, horses, hand tools, and manual labor. I grew up in the age of plastics, automobiles, electronics, and education.
A huge change took place between his birth and mine. One can see evidence of that change in the products made, the food consumed, the types of skills and knowledge valued by the different generations. But that change is most evident in the history of our words.
Some of the most commonly used words in the English language between 1800 and 1900 were truth, beauty, goodness, love, friend, and nature. By the year 2000, each of those words had been steadily declining for two centuries, replaced by words like result, function, efficiency, need, self, and development. Consulting Google’s Ngram Viewer to graph the relative frequency of word use in the English language, one finds that these sets of words cross paths between 1900 and 1920.
Today we use the word “self” three times as much as the word “friend.” We use the word “efficiency” four times as much as the word “goodness.”
I have come to think of what happened during my grandpa’s lifetime as the Great Shift, when our society transitioned from connection to production, from community to technology.
That is not wholly regrettable. Today, we enjoy, and even take for granted, air travel, instant communication, electricity on demand, and antibiotics. But along with those advantages has come a loss of mutual dependence and meaning.
That is probably why one of the words that has declined most drastically since the 1800s is “grace.” It seems we no longer have much use for a word that represents the idea of an unearned gift from above. Today we have a hard time locating value outside our own purposes. We are five times more likely to use the word “function” than “grace.”
A plastic penny has no genuine function. It is a mere curiosity, a toy—worthless, in the world’s estimation of worth. And that’s the way it is with grace. There is no use for it, but it serves to remind us of those things which have inestimable value.
In a world of practicality—of result, productivity, and efficiency—we need to be reminded that what gives our lives worth is not what we achieve but who we love.
To think otherwise is to take a wooden nickel.