The Search for Meaning in the Visa Bill

One of the most boring burdens of adulthood, in my opinion,1 is the monthly review of the Visa bill. Like the Linear B tablets from the Bronze Age archives of Pylos and Mycenae, which listed every sheep, goat, chariot wheel, and jug of olive oil dispensed or received by the palace treasury, the Visa bill provides a highly detailed picture of one month’s spending. It is a pointillist portrait of Pat’s and my shared life that utterly fails to convey anything of true importance about us, our values, or what matters to us. It presents, as often as not, a list of ephemeral disappointments: movies seen but not enjoyed, meals consumed but not remembered, purchases at Walmart and Target that we cannot recall and certainly do not treasure.

And yet our lives are actually quite joyful (as, I hope, are yours) because of experiences that elude the Visa bill: a thought-provoking book read and enthusiastically discussed with each other; a chance encounter with a staff or faculty colleague on a campus path that leads to a stimulating conversation; an impromptu meal with students in the Garden Room, spiced with an animated discussion about campus life; cheering ourselves hoarse at a Mules game; a well-taught class in which our students share the thrill of discovery; and most important of all, the certain knowledge that this College we work for is enriching and empowering the lives of a rising generation that will, eventually, care for us and for our grandchildren. In short, our personal happiness represents a rich return on investments in relationships rather than purchases.

Photo of President HelmThe contrast between our financial expenditures and emotional investments evokes ancient analogies in another way as well. Just as the Linear B tablets tell us little about the spirit and values of the Bronze Age Greeks, the Iliad and Odyssey, which focus on the values, passions, and relationships of their heroes, bring these ancients alive in a way that mere inventories never can.

By the time this issue of Muhlenberg magazine reaches you, the busiest season of the year will have arrived. The clamor of commerce will engulf us all; our schedules will be jammed to bursting with errands and obligations; our mailboxes will be stuffed with cards, catalogues, and appeals for charitable contributions. Serenity will be a wistful fantasy, and I suspect all of our credit cards will be getting quite a workout. But will our January Visa bills reflect what we consider important?

At this time of year, when commerce would beguile us into believing that satisfaction derives from spending power, we must make time to reflect on what matters most – to ourselves and to our community, nation, and world. If we are more intentional about investing our time, thought, and resources in people, our lives will be more joyful and more significant. Along these lines, you will not be surprised that I submit that the mission of this College – training young people for lives of leadership and service – should be a passionate priority for all of us. Ours is a mission that requires a daily commitment from faculty, students, staff, but also, especially at this time of year, from alumni, parents, and friends. Strong colleges can count on strong support. Muhlenberg graduates contribute so much to our society and our world – as healers, teachers, business leaders, artists, and in countless other ways. The potential gifts of Muhlenberg graduates to the common good in years to come are virtually unlimited – if each of us plays our part. Last year more than one-third of our alumni made gifts to support the College’s mission, a participation rate that is the envy of many schools. But for Muhlenberg it is not good enough.

We are now undertaking a bold new plan for Berg’s future. The strategic initiatives we have agreed upon will make this caring community better in almost every way; they will increase the value of a Muhlenberg degree, and most important of all, they will enable us to produce liberally educated leader-servants whose contributions will enrich society a thousand-fold – if our alumni, parents, and friends rally to our cause.

I hope, as you review your priorities during this often-frantic time of year, that you will think of Muhlenberg and its important work, and that you will act in the knowledge that your support of this small college makes a big difference in this world.


Peyton R. Helm
Muhlenberg College


1 I should note that my wife Pat disagrees. She observes: “Obviously, you do not like to shop. When I review the bill I see a list of triumphs: bargains obtained, sales timed just right…”

The Last Word


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