In Some Small Measure, Wisdom

Picture of the Interior of the Jefferson Memorial, taken by Thomas Gideon

Yesterday I took what ended up being an epic walk. I have already written about how I have been walking more lately. Walking more has been easier over the last two months. I had been taking days off or at least working from home while focused on my job search. The other week, I had a sudden run of days in DC but hadn’t yet come up with attractive walking routes to help me keep up my new habit. In looking around an online map of what was nearby, I found Constitution Gardens. The Gardens truly are one of the hidden treasures of DC and I wish I had found them sooner. There is a huge water feature within which is a small island that has a ring of stone engraved with the signatures of all those who signed the Declaration of Independence. The Gardens are a decent half hour walk from where I work. Worked–today is my last day and my new gig is located much closer to home, in the suburbs.

During that first walk to the Gardens, I paused near the World War II memorial and happened to noticed the Jefferson Memorial was close by. On that day, I promised myself I would come back to see that site before my last day working in DC. I did just that yesterday, taking advantage of some cold but stunning weather.

The online maps make the memorial seem far closer to the Gardens then it is, at least by foot. I walked around the World War II memorial. I crossed several beating arteries of downtown traffic and started around the tidal basin. The view of the memorial as you walk under the cherry trees is breathtaking, especially on a clear, sunny day like yesterday. The view lingers as the walk around the basin is a good twenty minutes. When I finished my visit, I continued my around the other side of the basin which is even a little longer than the side I walked on the way down.

The time and distance (an hour and a half and more than four miles respectively) were only part of what made the walk epic, at least to me. Thomas Jefferson holds a special place in my regard. He attended my alma mater where we refer to him as either Young Thom or Our Thom. We used the latter especially around UVa students. Jefferson founded UVa but he was a student at William and Mary. The claim to him is part of the two schools’ long standing rivalry.

More importantly, when I was just getting involved in online activism, exploring topics around creativity and intellectual property in a post-digital, post-network world, a quote of his spoke to me deeply. In a letter to Isaac McPherson, he wrote this particular turn of phrase in talking about intellectual property, its nature and how we should think of its regulation, for instance by copyright:

Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Visiting his memorial was a touchstone. At first I thought also it might be a farewell, a sort of personal resignation. I am leaving the world of working directly for the public interest to return to private industry. The memorial is filled with inspiring quotes, four of them in massive panels interspersed with openings out onto views of the tidal basin, the Potomac, and parts of DC. A more subtle quote is worked into the stone just beneath the dome.

I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Standing in a contemplative space dedicated to someone whose writings called to me across the generations, thinking about this transition in my life, that last part really struck me. Even though for reasons related to my own pursuit of happiness I was leaving the service of the public interest, in my own way I can certainly hold to fighting every form of tyranny over the mind of man. I can do so wherever I find myself, not in the least on this site and in my podcast as I am renewing and recommitting to my writing and thinking here.

That thought touched off what I hope is at least some small measure of wisdom I can take away from this job, more so than I have managed to realize when leaving jobs past.

Earlier in my career, I often gave into the urge to demonize the the people or experiences from a job I was leaving. I’ve read enough to understand I am not alone in feeling the urge to do so. Humans are story telling creatures. We continually weave a story of our own life. Our own individual narrative first and foremost supports who we think we are. When the world around us is at odds with who we believe ourselves to be, we feel pain in the form of cognitive dissonance. The easiest way to relieve that pain is to change our narrative, despite the facts, to restore the version of ourselves we believe is true.

I increasingly believe the secret of true wisdom is to resist rewriting our personal narratives. If we admit our own faults, the tale becomes the richer for it. We invite in opportunities to learn, to actually grow and honestly become more of whom we would like ourselves to be, in fact and deed. In holding more to the complicated, messy, objective facts of our lives, we can better embrace humility, honesty and courage, rather than simply rewriting the narrative. If we revise our story, we miss that chance to harness our faults and mistakes to urge us on to do and be better in the future.

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