Human Exploits

Posted: August 13, 2008 in Culture

I picked up Bill Bryson’s curious book A Short History of Nearly Everything and have been wading through. I’m still in the early parts of the book, but I find it curious how he devotes considerable space to profiling people who laid the foundations of science in various disciplines. It also got me wondering whether it’s really all that laudable to be the sort of flawed, driven person who makes a mark on posterity sufficient to be written about in a book years later. (As Bryson makes clear — unintentionally perhaps — it’s frequently the case that individuals way out of balance with normalcy are those who work the hardest and/or take the largest risks, whereas others stumble unwittingly into their niche in history.) Biographers used to laud the exploits of military leaders and statesmen. These days, our attention is almost exclusively riveted on celebrities, which is to say, entertainers. Whether artists and athletes (and others) fall within the entertainment category is impossible to establish irrefutably, but I’d say “yes” simply for the fact that we pay attention to the output of artists and athletes for our own enjoyment. The question of worthwhile entertainments vs. base ones I’ll leave untouched.

I also recently saw the movie Lions for Lambs. The movie’s central imperative is clear: one must choose between the options of living a life of relatively unconflicted (and decadent) ease and enjoyment versus striving to make a difference — any difference. Two characters in the movie opt to try and end up wasting their lives in a pointless military gambit on an Afghan mountaintop; another character, a politician well schooled in GOP talking points, insists he’s trying to make a difference with this military maneuver but may instead really be positioning himself for a run at the presidency; a further character is wrestling with the decision whether or not to bother. It’s clearly a young man’s game (the omission of young women may not be significant), as the two seasoned characters have long since addressed the central imperative and are now, later in life, clinging to the tatters of their integrity and former ideals.

As a young man, I certainly internalized the call to greatness, though from my perspective now it looks nearly indistinguishable from a will to power. I strove for a number of years to enter a highly sought-after profession, where I believed I could make a difference, but never succeeded. Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but now I’m uncertain whether I would even want it anymore, considering the really interesting aspects have been blunted by the adoption of a corporate veneer. Similarly, after a few foundering attempts, I abandoned the call to service as a schoolteacher, sadly recognizing that my efforts would inevitably be squandered due to the bureaucratized nature of that aged institution.

As a middle-aged man (middle age appears to be shifting to later in life), I’ve comforted myself that my attempts to make a difference, though meager, have meant doing my work quietly and competently (expertly even) within a veritable ocean of mediocrity and incompetence. My presence in a room or on a project, though not usually dazzling, always improves the overall level and sometimes stands out as special. Further, I labor quietly though steadfastly to build and maintain a sense of community in my various endeavors, which is a value now on the wane but one that has sustained us through the generations.

My name is unlikely to appear in any books written in the future as my contributions are too subtle and anonymous to matter for that particular honor. And I can’t foist that craving for immortality on my children as so many parents do (parents of celebrities now inevitably become celebrities in their own right). So I’m left with option 2: the sort of anonymous life lived by billions of us. But that need not be wholly decadent, as suggested in the movie. It might in fact be the only sane response to a world out of balance.

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