Some Life Lessons from Southern History

Lesson #1: Life is what you make of it.

Everything is not always going to turn out the way you want it to. A man has to learn to adapt to changing times. Change is a cold reality of life. It’s not always welcome, but it has to be dealt with eventually. After the War, as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, Robert E. Lee told his Southern students to become good citizens of the United States. I’m not quite sure the extent to which he really meant that, but his point is clear: get along the best you can with the situation as given.

Lesson #2: The world doesn’t revolve around you.

Mama used to tell me this all the time. I was not a humble child. It’s difficult trying to be a humble adult. I used to throw a temper tantrum every time I didn’t get what I wanted. Mama would be quick to do two things. First she would provide a quick lecture about the world not revolving around me. Second, she would threaten to call Daddy home from work if I didn’t straighten up. That was all it took. I’ve learned over the years that many mamas in the South told their children the same thing. It’s a hard lesson to learn.

Lesson #3: “Get there fustest with the mostest.”

A quote from General Nathan Bedford Forrest. It means you’d best get your act together and beat the enemy at their own game. We don’t kill Yankees anymore, but the lesson is still valid. Our enemy today is anyone and everyone who tries to destroy something of ours that is of immense value. Do we tuck tail and run? No sir, we claim the high ground as soon as possible, with as much power as possible, and this time, we win. Make sense? Keep living. It will.

Lesson #4: Learn to enjoy all the little everyday things.

From 1865 to about 1950, the South was the poorest region in the country. That’s what losing a hard-fought war will do for you. I’ve known several people who lived during the early decades of the twentieth century. They saw the depression, a world war, and lots of poverty. But these people usually don’t talk about the poverty, they talk about the good times they had enjoying life’s simple pleasures, usually on a farm. Some say those old folks are just romanticizing a life that didn’t exist. That doesn’t matter to me. I believe it did. I believe there was a time not so long ago when things were better, simpler, and people had enough in common to have a real community.

Lesson #5: “Land is the only thing worth fighting for. It’s the only thing that lasts.”

Now that’s a quote from Gerald O’Hara. I wonder how many men know how much land they could buy for the price they are willing to pay for a new pickup? In the old days, land provided financial security and a sense of personal independence that nothing else could. Owning land was every man’s dream. Few things have aggravated me more over the years than watching families split land into little plots and sell it off to developers once the family patriarch passed away. Lack of good breeding if you ask me.

Lesson #6: Don’t squander time. It’s the stuff life is made of.

I think that came from Gone With The Wind as well. This makes sense to me. Look at the life of Thomas Jefferson. The man could do it all. He was an architect, farmer, writer, governor, president, philosopher, master botanist, landscape designer, and an avid collector of fine books. He was well traveled, lover of good music, father, husband, etc. I’m sure some cynic would say Jefferson was exceptional. You think? That’s the point. Southern history is full of such accomplished men. Whether you like him or not, Jefferson did a lot with the time he was given. What are you doing to make everyday count? Hmm?

Lesson #7: It all depends which part of the country you’re standing in that determines just how different you are.

Another good line, this one from Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. Again, makes sense. Ever been up North and ordered sweet tea at a fine restaurant? They look at you like you’re an orange ball-headed midget. Then again, I’ve seen people walk into a Cracker Barrel in South Carolina and order “cream of wheat.” Do what? Sorry pal. In the words of the great Georgia philosopher Lewis Grizzard, there is still a great chasm between North and South. And, I might add, it still matters.

Lesson #8: Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s useless. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s better.

South Carolina painter Jim Harrison wrote a book many years ago about the importance of the old country store to American history. That book left a lasting impression on me as a teenager. I remember distinctly an argument he made about modern America being a throw away culture. It’s a persuasive argument. We buy something, use it for a spell, then throw it away and get a new one. Harrison pointed out, however, that time has a way of taking the newness of man made things and turning them into something beautiful. I know what he meant. An old farmhouse is far more appealing than a new mansion in a popular subdivision.

Lesson #9: Sophistication isn’t worth much.

My Daddy once told me that sophistication is just another word to describe a complicated phony. One of the greatest lessons I learned from the life of General Stonewall Jackson is pretension is nigh useless. Jackson didn’t try to draw attention to himself. He was always too busy for that. There’s nothing wrong with being a gentleman. In fact, gentility is rightly viewed as a Southern hallmark. But a gentleman is cultivated, a far better term I think. The main point is simply this, don’t get above your raisin’. The most memorable stories in Southern history are about people who stayed down to earth as much and as often as possible.

-Alan Harrelson

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