Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fancy's Show Box

Read Fancy's Show Box here

A bit of a story, more of an essay. I might have shared this piece with my father. I remember in my childhood reading Little House on the Prairie and feeling compelled to discuss the scene where Laura nearly unties Jack, the dog, against her father's orders. Indians came to her home in Papa's absence, Jack was excited, and Laura thought that maybe she should release Jack on the uninvited, perhaps life-threatening guests. Somehow the visit turned non-threatening and the scene ended safely with Jack secured. Later when Laura confessed her almost sin, her father told her that thinking about sinning is as bad as actually committing the deed.

Whoa, ho, ho. My dad disagreed. He had apparently wrestled this topic with priests, even Jesuits. He came down firmly in the camp of an earthly judge. "If you go to a police station and try to turn yourself in because you thought about killing someone but did not, they will not arrest you because no crime has been committed. And if you keep on insisting you're guilty, they'll think you're crazy. If there is no act, there is no crime." He was an agnostic at the time.

In Fancy's Show Box, Hawthorne wrestles with this question of guilt in thought but not deed. He provides a fanciful scene with three apparitions and a victim paying for his sinful thoughts. Then he switches to essay format and dismisses this absurd possibility. He finishes with a sermon that none are guiltless and worthy of heaven.

I would have liked to discuss this story with my father, because he and Hawthorne and Wilder had different visions to illustrate this question of conscience, and because I think this is an example of moral dilemma we must each wrestle and settle for ourselves. The wisest parents, teachers, and counselors encourage us to seek our own answers for questions of faith and conscience. The best authors give us new ways of looking at old questions.

My take? Certainly nothing as eloquent as Hawthorne or even Wilder. I would argue that humans have the ability to imagine the future and consider the impact of their actions in advance. Our technology, our culture, all our creations and progress depend upon this ability. And as responsible, thinking beings, we must each be able to contemplate actions and their possible repercussions without retribution so that we can stop ourselves before we embark on an undesired path.

That said, I also don't think it is helpful to spend a lot of time imagining yourself committing crimes against others. I believe my quality of life and that of everyone around me are improved when I focus on positive solutions than when I stew about unpleasant confrontations and violent behaviors.

A footnote for anyone curious when Dickens wrote his famous tale of three apparitions and conscience: Wikipedia shows A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, Fancy's Show Box in 1837.

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