An Unwelcome Revelation
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Every now and then the truth leaks out. You know, the way the universe is really organized. Maybe you knew it all along, or maybe you suspected it long ago. Still, when you accidentally hear the inner ticking of the gears or glimpse the secret action of the levers, the mind does tend to reel.
Picture a winter's night 20 years ago: A fearfully younger version of The Urban Man sits in the cramped upstairs study of a great Angeleno—you know, the kind of personage who exerts a gravitational pull, on whose words people hang. It's after midnight. Papers are piled everywhere, and a single desk lamp burns.
I'd been working for this famous personage as a kind of aide-de-camp, and all evening we'd been strategizing about battles he would fight and dragons he would slay. But now our work was done, and the Great Man complained, with a sigh:
"Most people get so tired."
"What do you mean?" I reply.
"You can't count on them," he continues. "They get tired. They wimp out."
"You have unusual energy," I say, for we have both accepted his greatness as a palpable and given thing.
Still, he persists: "Most people aspire to so very little. Some money. A few comforts. A house. Once or twice they have a vision of something bigger, but they haven't the strength to follow up on it. Most people disappoint me, every day."
"You shouldn't be so hard on ‘most people,'" say I, feeling a little put out, and worse—suspecting that I'm about to have one of those unwelcome revelatory moments.
Sure enough, the Great Man says something we have all always suspected, but says it out loud. He says it leaning back in his chair, with eyes closed against the lamp:
"In every generation," he says, "only a few people really matter. A few leaders. A few thinkers. It's as if the whole generation were created just to produce those very few."
There's a pause. I don't reply, but he has not sought a reply. In fact, he has nodded off. For a time, I examine his famous face slumbering among well-earned accomplishments. And damn if my mind doesn't reel.
Okay, at first, I think: "He must be wrong. After all, hasn't the entire thrust of religion and philosophy over the last 3,000 years been a mortal struggle against an elite view of human value? Isn't his attitude fundamentally pagan? And hasn't humankind, if only slowly and painfully, made great progress in thinking that every person matters?"
Then a cold wave dances down my spine. "On the other hand," I think, "this man is certainly smarter than me. Besides, nearly every book, every opinion, every news article I read confirms his words. Maybe philosophy and religion have been deeply mistaken, and it's true that just a few remarkable people count in every generation. Maybe, like everyone says, you do have to be bigger than life to really experience life. Maybe that actually is the whole point."
At last, I left the great man sleeping and walked downstairs to the night. Out on the windy street, I thought I could hear the clatter of urban men and women fighting to create and own enormous things—or perhaps it was just the rattle of the eucalyptus in the breeze. As I got in my car, I thought: "Maybe, like countless Angelenos before me, I should also try to get as large a life as I can, out in the dark city of dreams."
In any case, I knew I'd have to quit my job as aide-de-camp. I mean, obviously it would take a few years to thoroughly consider his statement—or better yet, forget that I ever heard it said aloud.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved. Dates & circumstances altered to protect the author.
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