Hey - Two Brothers Talking

“We cast this message into the cosmos.”

June 17, 2019

Hey James,

“The rules are clear in a Fascist society, you feel like you are part of something important, the stakes feel both extremely high and unreal.” [emphasis mine] You wrote this in your last note. It – the feeling of being part of something important – along with the desire to have that feeling are concepts I’ve been reflecting on lately. We seek spaces where we aren’t insignificant, where we feel like some piece of us can be a brick in some larger building. Knowing that we’re on the right side of the fight, knowing that we have contributed to something that will exist outside of ourselves, knowing that we are known by others.

Why is this? Why do we need to be more than ourselves?

This past weekend, Jackie and I flew to Atlanta before driving west to Jacksonville, Alabama for a wedding. With plenty of time to make that part of the journey, we decided to visit the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. This decision was motivated in part by my desire to visit all of the presidential libraries. We’d visited the JFK Museum in Boston twice, and each time I had walked away inspired and reinvigorated. For me, I’m drawn to the promise of youth and new eyes on the old problems of distrust and injustice. Kennedy’s believe in the power of young people, exemplified by his creation of the Peace Corps, is one of his greatest traits. He accomplished so much in two and a half years as president. And then….

That’s what we want in a leader, right? Someone who excites us, inspires us, drives us to action, but who doesn’t disappoint us by becoming irrelevant and outdated. We don’t want someone like Carter, whose loss in 1980 signaled a retreat from progressive policies, from science, from an appreciation for the complexity of existence. People wanted Easy Answer Reagan, who promised a return to the Good Old Days (TM) of white picket fences and a static social order.

Carter’s museum isn’t full of pomp and praise. I know it glosses over some things that would portray Carter in a negative light, as any monument would. But it struck me as…simple. There is no celebration there. Just the story of a man who served his country and continues to solve challenges around the globe.

There was one moment when I felt overwhelmed: walking into the replica of the Oval Office from Carter’s White House. The Resolute desk, the great seal, the paintings, the Bucking Bronco. I felt like I was there. I stood in awe. This is one of the rooms in which the world’s spin can be changed. Could I ever be in the real Oval Office? Could I ever have something worth sharing with those walls? And how would I react if I were there?

And then I looked down, and saw a spider walking on the rug. He moved slowly, but his black body was boldly there in a room not created for him. The incongruity of his presence brought me back to the truth: we do not matter as much as we think we do. The Oval Office is just a room, the United States is only two hundred years old, and this planet is only one out of nearly countless ones throughout the universe.

So I return to my question: why do we need to be more than ourselves? It’s because we straddle a line between insignificance and extreme importance depending on the scale of magnification. We seek to feel like we’re part of something important because it gives us solid ground to stand on while everything else seems so unsure. Such stability is essential so we don’t lose ourselves to nihilism. But we’ve got to remember that importance is temporary, and sometimes…it’s just a rug for a bug to walk on.

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