… The Knight of the Holy Grail, Frederick J. Waugh, Renwick Gallery
As I walked out of a breakfast meeting yesterday morning, a bright young thing scurried up beside me and asked, “What was that really all about?”
We had been introduced just before the meeting convened. It was not clear to me if he was an intern or just-hired GS-zero-something. (He has now confirmed he is a full-time federal contract employee. This is his first job out of a Masters program.)
“What’s the back-story? Who’s really trying to do what?” he said.
It had been a typical Washington D.C. event. A private sector group had hosted a meeting that mixed a few civilian and uniformed feds, with a few civilian and uniformed non-feds, with some academics, and a couple of hard-to-define gad-flies.
I belong to the last category. A gad-fly’s principal value is biting a horse on its rump in order to prompt a gallop, preferably in a specific direction. But sometimes any movement is better than nothing.
“Aaa… what do you think?” I worried that my sub-text alert system was malfunctioning. I had not perceived much of any agenda, hidden or otherwise. The apple strudel, crisp on the outside with a warm fruity interior, had struck me as the most substantive aspect of the meeting.
My younger colleague proceeded to spin an impressive web of connections and potential conspiracies. Drawing on evidence from Politico, graduate studies in a security field, this blog, and — most impressive to me — some serious familiarity with Ludwig Wittgenstein, he framed the breakfast coffee-klatch as having the potential to change the world as we know it.
I am a child of the Quantum Era, I know everything is connected. I believe in emergence. This may be the only thing in which I deeply believe.
Maybe it is a gad-fly’s aversion to webs that kept me some distance from the young man’s description of the reality we had each just experienced.
A similar attraction and dissonance skipped along my synapses this morning as I read for a third time the collection of “voices from the homeland” that Chris Bellavita posted yesterday. (Please scroll down, those comments are separated from these by only one wretched post.)
Do these people inhabit the same planet?
Imagine for a moment breakfast with essayist number 2 (if we do have enemies, we should try to figure out why they are mad at us) and essayist number 3 (we should hold suspected terrorists longer than other people even though it may go against the constitutional right of that person) and essayist number 15 (most people don’t realize the consequences of being under full Sharia law).
There’s a discussion that should distract me from the strudel. Maybe we should wait for dinner where something stronger than coffee can be offered.
Unfortunately these diverse realities seldom sit together over a meal. Instead they collide in the more rarefied confines of dueling essays, snarky blogging, television commentary, or Congressional hearings… where, most often, value is generated by finding or causing a new fracture rather than cultivating enhanced commonality.
Yesterday, fortunately, my 10:30 appointment had canceled. I was able to listen, ask, and comment in private. It was already hot and humid, so we slipped into the Renwick Gallery where we whispered about our individual perceptions of threat, vulnerability, motivation, and purpose. The painting above dominates the Grand Salon.
We did not always agree. My young friend is predisposed to see intention where I tend to perceive randomness. But it was a worthwhile 40 minutes. At least a young man, just beginning his career, felt as if someone was listening. An older man nearing the close of his career was flattered to be asked his opinion.
Reality is hard to know with any certainty. The best we can do is to listen to one another — really attend to one another — and then respond with whatever experience, judgment, and insight we might have. Earnest is not bad. The issues are serious. But humility, especially with a bit of humor, is probably even more worthwhile.
As elusive as the grail.