08 September 2015
I spent most of my life engaged in some aspect of warfare. I fought in a war that lasted over a decade, which ruined many of my generation. Our nation’s longest war at the time. It has since been eclipsed by our current endeavors, which is perhaps ruining many of another generation. After two decades in naval aviation, I went on to a second career of evaluating military aircraft and weapons systems.
I am a child of the forties and fifties. Not a baby boomer. A pre-boomer by a couple years. A duck and cover kid, raised during the era of McCarthy, monolithic communism, and the domino theory. Having no chance for college, I went off into the service at the age of seventeen with Kennedy’s words ringing in my ears, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” my head full of my country right or wrong stuff.
My son Tucker drove up from San Diego to visit over the weekend. We talked and talked, as we always do, into the wee hours of morning. He has a very different life from the one I have lived. He is a grad student at the University of California, studying physics in the hope that someday he may unlock one of the secrets of the universe. Currently, he is working with an international team designing a microwave telescope that will be launched as a satellite by NASA in 2020. For me to say I am proud of his achievements is an understatement.
A little before midnight Saturday, he surprised me. He said that he wondered if what he was doing had any worth. How did it contribute to the real needs of the world? Would it not be better to be doing something that contributed to the well being of humanity? I was taken aback initially and told him his work would contribute to our understanding of the universe. But he wanted to know why that mattered. Does it put food on anyone’s table but his own? In truth, I did not have a good answer, so I told him what I know of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and how he walked through the poverty-stricken districts of Moscow ruminating on what he could do, if anything, to alleviate the suffering. He came to the conclusion that the problem was so massive, he could give away all his wealth, but it would only be a drop in the bucket, and in the end, there would just be one more living in poverty—him. It would be the equivalent of pissing into the wind. That did not satisfy Tuck. I was not surprised, because I have ruminated on the same issues, and like Tolstoy, have not found a satisfactory answer. Maybe many of us suffer this quandary. If we do, nobody can give us the answers we need. We just have to sort things out for ourselves.
I have a long time friend named Jack. He is a political activist. He worked a decade or more for Dr. Martin Luther King. Jack is now in his eighties and still busy as hell. I wonder sometimes if he has really accomplished anything with all his time and work. I know with myself, I would probably grow frustrated and give up at some point. It all seems such a futile thing. I look around and the problems that exist seem so massive. What can one person do? But I have figured out something, I think. When one does what is most important to them, they imbue it with meaning. They are willing to howl into the wilderness even when it seems to accomplish nothing. It gives their life meaning, and only they can measure whether they succeed or fail. Now that I have some understanding of this, what will I do with it? Man, another goddamn unanswerable question. Maybe all worthwhile questions are that way, I do not know. Do you?
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