The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of
"There are epochs in our lives that mark the beginning of new paragraphs, in our individual histories; we remember them like milestones." (John Davey, 1920)
In Part I of my story about my grandfather, John Davey, I mentioned that he has been recognized as a genius. What do I mean by "genius"?
A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight (Wikipedia).
And what produces a genius?
There is, in fact, empirical reason for believing that the development of genius may sometimes be enhanced by traumatic or adverse experiences in childhood and adolescence.
But the type of adversity that has attracted the most scientific research is early parental loss or orphanhood. This literature has found a tendency for geniuses of all kinds to have experienced the death of one or both parents at an early age.
Moreover, those who later attained status as creators almost invariably engaged in the arduous process of self-education. Self-education may have the critical function of maintaining the necessary breadth in the face of the narrowing tendencies of formal education. (Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity. Dean Keith & Simonton, 1999)
Certainly, my grandfather met all these criteria, as we'll see as we pick up John's story in the second part.
If you remember, Part I of the story of John Davey focused on the day he considers to be his First Milestone. The year was 1850, the country was England, it was 11 years before the start of the Civil War across the sea, and John was 4 years old. After successfully planting a potato and feeling ecstatic when the plant finally broke through the ground, he adopted his father's motto in life, "Do It Right Or Not At All." And, as he says, "On that day, a little scientist was born."
When John was 8 years old, he "went out to work on neighboring farms receiving a sixpence a day for my labor.'' He felt great pride in his ability to work hard. One day John noticed a workman writing on a slate that he was preparing to put on a roof. Never having seen this before, but realizing that he couldn't do that, John set a goal to someday learn to read and write himself. Can you imagine that at 8 years old, he had never even seen anyone read or write?
In 1859, when John was just 13, his beloved mother died, a traumatic Second Milestone in his life. And that was not the only trauma. As was the custom in large farm families, John was "put out to service." This meant that he was sent from his home to work for another farmer, with his wages given to John's father until he was 21. In other words, the young John Davey lost not only his mother, but his family as well.
In his new surroundings, John became a shepherd boy, spending long days drinking in the beauty of the natural world - the trees and flowers, the meandering streams, the magnificent clouds, and the cycles of nature. He taught himself to play his wooden flute (which is still in the family), and he would sing to himself and his flock. It was a time of great sorrow, loneliness, and reflection, and I feel that these years between 13 and 21 shaped him to become a fierce protector of the environment. Thereby, he could do for the environment what he couldn't do for the family.
Perhaps as a way of keeping his connection to his deeply devout mother alive, John developed a deep and profound religious fervor, seeing God in everything. Mother Nature and his "heavenly Father" became his new family, something he desperately needed in his struggle with painful feelings of loneliness.
John's roommate on the farm away from home was a very tough "teamster," a burly man whom John feared would mock him for kneeling by his bed and saying his prayers in the morning and evening. He was right. When John knelt by his bed, his roommate bolted upright and shouted, "What are you doing there, you little devil?" John, only 13 years old, was so shaken that he stopped saying his prayers. However, this "sin" troubled him to the core, and he hated the cowardice he demonstrated in not standing up to this bully. "My anchorage is gone," he felt, and he began to "drift."
Another way he kept his connection to his mother was to adhere to her admonishments to never swear. He felt that swearing was a violation of his mother's maxims, and a terrible sin against God. He writes:
In order to comprehend how my soul was tortured you must know that profanity in England, was regarded as one of the worst of sins. Against this sin, my Mother had tried to fortify me and as long as I followed the wise custom of prayer I kept free from the vice, and felt happy.
To our modern ears, it's difficult to understand the agony that his religious belief brought to his life - especially about swearing. Can you imagine how he would feel about today's language?
But perhaps you can imagine the ordeal he endured in wanting to be like the other boys, and to fit in. To do so, John admits that, "I enlarged my vocabulary and became a moderate swearer." Yet, he agonized over his fall from grace, certain that "all swearers go to hell."
After five years, Tom Braddock, an older friend of his, died suddenly of pneumonia. On his deathbed, Tom cried, "Hell must be my portion." When John heard about Tom's last words, he gave himself a command: "John Davey, you stop this swearing." Not only did he stop swearing, but he "set a watch against every other possible failure."
John was a driven young man of 18, a perfectionist who must have felt all alone in the world. He did, however, gain a broader understanding of how complex people could be when he writes about two of his older friends: "Both were very profane but outside of the 'failing' they were the soul of honor, and this I have often found to be the case."
By this time, John was now living and working on a large farm and "was rapidly climbing to the foremanship which was awarded me at the age of eighteen. Care of all the stock and the leading of the men now fell to me, a high honor at that age." Not that this was an easy time for him:
Two years went by - two years in purgatory. To "cease to do evil" in itself did not bring consolation. How could I make amends for the past? Prayer, open prayer, would be helpful - but I was a coward. I wanted to be a real Christian but did not want people to know it!
Again and again have I wandered among my innocent flocks, thinking of the "Good Shepherd" and crying out: "Oh, that I could 'Hear His Voice'". Then I would look into the starry vault and moan, "Mother, where art thou, Mother!" Then, dropping on my knees, the soul would break forth: "Oh God, lead me somewhere, so that I can be what thou wouldest have me be."
I found a way, however, to partially alleviate my sorrow. Frequently, in the evenings, I would go away into the pasture fields, among my flock, accompanied by my only sympathetic friend, my faithful, old, loving "Shep," MY SHEPHERD DOG.
In these times of agony of soul, he would keep close by me, whine, and when on my knees, lick away the tears as they coursed down my cheeks. Never can I forget the faithful creature that could sense my agony of soul when my fellow-men could not.
I believe that it was during these most traumatic years between 13 and 21, when the seeds of John Davey's genius were sewn. He tried to alleviate his deep agony and sorrow through contemplation, and it was through his contemplative nature that his genius blossomed. He was about to embark on a journey that would eventually take him far, far away from his humble beginnings.
To Be Continued in Part III.....