Notes from the Perimeter

Thursday, October 23, 2008


As the leaves burnish and the chill night air of the New Hampshire north country hints of the monsoons of snow to come, it’s hard to remember the tender days of spring when life was bursting up through snowplow debris and, all over the country, graduates were being exhorted by a multiplicity of commencement speakers to get out there and “make a difference.”

Once I was invited to serve as the faculty advisor for a Lesley University Women’s College senior class. My primary duty, as far as I could discover before I declined the honor, was to give a gung-ho speech to members of the class, parents and faculty guests at the beginning of the year. As I was contemplating what I would say, naturally I decided to tell them to get out there and make a difference. Then I thought about it.

The problem is, everyone makes a difference. No matter what you do, your presence on this earth alters the course of things. Each of us is a tiny bundle of gravity imperceptibly curving the space-time around us and inexorably affecting the orbit and the destiny of each person who crosses our path. Even a determined effort not to make one whit of a difference makes a difference. Life can be a bitch.

Change is also a bitch. There’s no question that most of us are pretty unhappy with the current state of affairs. On the world stage, we’ve become Snidely Whiplash: a mean, bloated, ultimately ineffectual cartoon villain. On the home front, we’re the orphans cast out into the storm. As hard-earned money melts away, as the globe continues to warm, as we persist in embroiling ourselves in a war that never should have started and never seems to end, we are adrift in a mess of the administration’s making. However, we the people need to bear our full measure of responsibility for the sea of trouble in which we’re sinking.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say we, the electorate, made some wicked bad choices, but I don’t really fault us for that: elections have become such a game of image manipulation that bad choices are par for the course. However, isn’t it our duty to take some ownership of our choices and hold them – the choice-ees – to the high standards they might have fooled us into buying?
Our contract with our elected officials is complex. We give them permission to make weighty decisions. We allow them to abide by the equivocal notion of “what they think is right.” We laud them with a measure of fame, a degree of power, and some lucre (hopefully not dirty).

In return, the good ones bear a burden of responsibility that, as a friend of mine would say, could choke a horse and which, regardless of which ideological path they follow, they honor by placing duty above profit. The bad ones take the game to another level – it becomes a blood sport in which moderation and nuance are crushed, cronies just by being cronies are lifted up, and spoils are for the taking. Good or bad, they are our surrogates: their mouths might be moving but it is our voice that is heard. And for way too long we’ve tolerated their abuses of privilege while allowing our fears to overwhelm our fundamental courage and decency.

In these perilous times, the very idea of change is like that pair of fantastic Jimmy Choos (for those of you who might need explaining: Jimmy Choos are Shoes) featured in Vogue: everyone wants them. Everybody wants change. Each one claims to offer it, and they all fight over who most represents it. And, truth be told, nobody wants it, not really. For most of us, change feels major, change feels uncomfortable, and most of all, change, even positive change, feels challenging.

Numerous pundits have noted that on this shipwreck we call the current state of our country, it defies reason that we aren’t frantic to flag down the nearest passing vessel, especially one that promises a safe port and full spa treatment on the journey. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we resist change because we doubt what we do not know. Our old, familiar, smelly, scuffed, dowdy pumps feel safe and undemanding. We would have to live up to the Jimmy Choos. And that’s a bitch.

Again the problem: like making a difference, change is a constant whether we want it or not. In fact, life is nothing but change. Someone once told me that we humans cannot experience reality – we can only remember it. Our conscious lives are spent plunging from one unknown to the next. Anything else – notions of stability, predictability, and permanence – are mere illusions.

So, like making a difference, we might as well embrace change since we have no other option. We do have a choice in the matter of what kind of difference we will make and what kind of change we will propagate. We are a brave, honorable people, or at least we used to be, who rose to challenges instead of shrinking from them. I say, let’s proudly choose those Jimmy Choos and once more walk tall, fierce and fabulous.


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