Thursday, March 7, 2013

Uncertainty First

I started reading Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power this week.  It is a very well-written biography of Thomas Jefferson that, thankfully, does away with the dozens of pages normally dedicated to a famous person's childhood (the most interesting story being that Jefferson was sent by his father into the woods to prove he could fend for himself , found a trapped turkey in a cage, and brought it back to his father as evidence).

What I love about the modern day biography is that the interest in humanizing our idols normally brings with it a measure of humility.  Abraham Lincoln was a mud-slinging politician and made horse-trades when the circumstance commanded it.  Thomas Jefferson was plagued by uncertainty, which translated into an post-Revolution obsession with fighting against all things of British origin or ancestry.

But the uncertainty is what pulls me in.  That base question "Are we doing the right thing?"  Every significant moment in history begins there.  Retrospectively, history looks like a story.  There are protagonists, antagonists, and a plot-line known certain through which we will arrive at the present day.  The presumption that the "right" thing will inevitably occur in current affairs has foundation in this narrative.

Thomas Jefferson, and his friends, faced the biggest "Are we doing the right thing?" in the history of this Country: Inviting war when acquiescence would allow peace.  And it is not as if they left their meeting hall to throngs of cheering patriots.  There was uncertainty and suspicion about their activities among their communities as well.

And all of that is five steps beyond the preliminary question of making yourself a public person to begin with.  That is a tremendously weighty decision.  Jefferson was known to have remarked to a friend that they had left the life of reading books and hiking through fields for one less comfortable (despite continuing to read a lot of books his entire life...but maybe not as many).  I've previously remarked how we are seemingly engineered to give our political class a hard time.  They are people in positions of power and our American heritage says that those people are not to be trusted.  Nevertheless, there was a moment five, ten, fifteen years ago when that person stayed up very late with their spouse weighing the pros and cons of running for public office, and being very uncertain about whether it was a life worth leading. 

We're often frustrated with today's politics because there does not seem to be a comprehensive plan; no congruence between positions.  Because of this, they can't get anything done and we're all concerned that the future will be ruined as a result.  Imagine Jefferson's day.  Imagine a future proposed for which there was no precedent and known to be under constant threat of violence by stronger enemies.  It makes the sequester, and the looming debt, sound like a cake-walk.

To paraphrase a quote for which I cannot remember the author: The times in which a person lives always appear to be the most important times there ever were.  I think this is because from where we sit, the possibilities appear endless.  Back then, there was a destination known certain, and it is now.  Ten years from now, these times may look like petty fights over insignificant sums of money or they could be the first chapter of a very sad book.  The leaders of tomorrow will be talked about in terms of their ambition and path to greatness, spending little time wondering about those late nights talking about whether a campaign was compatible with a family.  But underneath it all is the moving time zone of uncertainty, touching everything.

That's all for today.  Have a fantastic Thursday doing what you love!