Old Greenlandic wisdom on young, unwise children


Traditional seal skin tent on display in Sisimiut.

For three summers in a row, I visited Greenland. I was completely enamored with the place, its people, its natural history, and the wisdom of its long-time Greenlandic residents.

I read every book about Greenland I could get my hands on during that time, from 1998 to 2000. One was Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos. The collection of stories covers the Danish explorer’s times in Greenland starting in the early 1900s. He lived among the native Greenlanders, married a local woman, and became an observer of their culture, even with infrequent heavy Western filters.

I wrote down a quote I read from this book when I was in Greenland. It provides a perspective from his Greenlandic mother-in-law, who helped him understand why the elders did not yell at the children for damaging their seal-skin pants while sliding on rocks.


A mother and her young son share a fun moment on a ferry in southwest Greenland.

Yes, but you see, nobody can help thinking by seeing this foolishness, children ruin things without giving it a thought, they have no cares. But every day of their lives they become wiser and wiser. Soon the time will come when they will never do that sort of thing. They will remember their unnecessary wear on their pants and regret it. Everyone must rejoice by recalling that we start out as thoughtless children, but with every day the good sense increases in us. At last we become old and sage. Just imagine if it were the other way around, so that we were born clever and economical, and our wisdom decreased with time. Then misfortune would dwell with people! Therefore, it is joyful to watch children’s careless play.

Trusted by a stranger, in a strange town, in the middle of the night

Tibetan Refugee Carpet Maker Photo

This contagiously positive carpet weaver is among the many Tibetan refugees I met in India at Dharamsala and Darjeeling, two hill stations.

Recently, I had two experiences over a couple of days during which I realized I was not trusted. It saddened me. Trust is almost always earned, but it also is very dependent on one’s own life’s story and circumstance, so some do not give it easily. Trust is one of the greatest treasures. It is a gift we give to young people to show we believe in them. It is also something that one has to demonstrate in life, and not be afraid of the consequences.

My experiences made me think of times I relied on blind trust. One of the most vulnerable moments I had traveling in India in 1989 took place in the middle of a late November night, in Dharamsala, the Indian hill town that is also refuge to the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees. I had arrived very late at the lower city of McLeod Ganj after 12 hours of bus rides. As there were no taxis, I walked up the hill, in the dark, having no reservations. It was 1:45 a.m. when I finally arrived sweaty on the cold hill city, but found all the hotels were shuttered. It was not particularly safe to be on the streets, and I had to find shelter.

So, I visited a tea stall restaurant, owned by a Tibetan man in his 50s. He was awake, making bread and cooking. I motioned I needed a place to sleep in his restaurant. I was likely dirty, a bit smelly, carrying a big backpack, and not the most welcoming of sights. He did not know me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: “Imagine this. A total stranger appears at his doorstep at 2 a.m. and he lets him in to sleep at no cost. I pulled out my sleeping bag and crashed for 4.5 hours. I woke up to the sounds of my friendly patron saint bustling in the kitchen. I wonder if he sleeps. He smiled at me and gave me a cup of tea.”

The power of redemption … it never, ever goes out of style

Patrick Stewart as Scrooge.

One of my favorite cinematic renditions of A Christmas Carol stars Patrick Stewart. Here is a photo from the 1999 version for television.

No holiday season is complete without seeing A Christmas Carol onstage. I just saw a nice performance in Portland by a group at the Portland Playhouse. Tales of redemption seem to be among my favorites. But good stories often involve change in our protagonist(s) and trial and tribulations that test the soul.

So, good reader, have you been tested like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was visited one Christmas night by four ghosts, trying to help him find purpose in his life? Do you need to be tested? Do you envision becoming a person who is fulfuling a better and higher purpose? Or maybe you have not fully appreciated what you have accomplished (in the case of our much tested George Bailey, from It’s a Wonderful Life)?

So here are four quotes from one of the greatest works ever written in the English language, A Christmas Carol, by the genius Charles Dickens, to help you contemplate the power of redemption and finding purpose. Merry Christmas!

  • First a description of Ebenezer Scrooge: “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

    A scene from the first spirit visiting Scrooge on Christmas Eve.

    A scene from the first spirit visiting Scrooge on Christmas Eve.

  • Scrooge, on Christmas eve, is confronted in his chamber by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who describes why he walks in the shadows: “I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
  • When Scrooge tries to console Marley that he was a good person, who did good business, Marley replies back: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
  • After a harrowing night, seeing his past, present, and wretched future with no one to miss his presence after he is gone, Scrooge changes on Christmas day: “[Scrooge] went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk — that anything — could give him so much happiness.”

There is no more dangerous animal in the bush than man

The lion is less deadly than a man in the bush, according to local wisdom in Uganda.

The lion is less deadly than a man in the bush, according to local wisdom in Uganda.

In 1997, I took a trip in upcountry Uganda to a bush administrative village called Moroto. This is the heartland of the Karamajong people, who are cattle herders and who fought a violent war against the Ugandan government during the brutal reign of Idi Amin Data. It was a wildly beautiful place. I only spent two days there.

I got to know some respected village community leaders. I will never forget the words one shared with me, describing the dangers of traveling in bush Africa. I had nearly been attacked by a local bandit in what I thought was a peaceful area. My hosts were deathly afraid I was going to be killed or robbed by the AK-47 wielding man, dressed in simple local clothing similar to the Masai. After that incident, my host told me, “There is no animal more dangerous in the bush than man. He is far more clever than a lion, and often smarter than you.”

I have never forgotten that advice, and I always mind my wits, whereever I find myself.

Life’s journey leads to many friendships

Two of seven samurai mourn a loss.

Katayama Gorobei. left, and Kambei Shimada mourn the loss of their fellow Samurai, Heihachi Hayashida.

I just saw Akiro Kurosawa’s masterpiece, The Seven Samurai, for perhaps my fifth time. It just gets better and better with time. A gem I found in this viewing was in the line from the first samurai, Katayama Gorobei, recuited by the leader of group, the wise and wily Kambei Shimada. When offered the proposition to pledge his life to defend the villagers from bandits with Kambei, Katayama replies with a smile, “In life one finds friends in the strangest places.” Could not agree more.