When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s I was determined to be the first man on Mars.
It’s ironic that half a century of “progress” finds us further from such a grand accomplishment than we were in the days of house-sized computers and cockpits fitted with steam gauges but such are the vagaries of the collective attention span. Books have been filled with speculation about where we went wrong, if we went wrong, what is worth doing , how do we know what is worth doing and so on. Suffice it to say that those who do don’t spend much time charting the precise boundaries of their own belly buttons. They have a different affliction than “me, me, oh dearie me!” What they have is called vision.
Did you ever try to turn your eyes around and look inside your own head? Funny thing about vision. Its focus can only be outward.
So I had this science fiction stoked vision, bolstered by blissfully unquestioned assumptions about America’s “can do” spirit, our history of reaching unreachable places and the inevitable destinations of progress. So many great things that we’ve blown to smithereens over the years were just the water we swam in back then. Somebody would make the trip and there was no reason why it couldn’t be me.
In hindsight, my youthful life-plan was ridiculous. Not because of the actual course of events; nobody could’ve predicted the retreat of the American vision and the inevitable shrinking of the world occasioned thereby. It was ridiculous because it wasn’t me. It required things of me that were contrary to my nature. For example, when I was in high school I joined the wrestling team and played soccer. I did those things because every astronaut’s biography included sports. Cooperative competition, self discipline and the drive for excellence are indispensible to people who leave the atmosphere for a living. I understood all that but guess what? I hate sports. This is not a criticism of sports minded people but I don’t get it. I mean, sure I ended up fit and stuff but the time spent doing something arduous and boring felt more like pointless torment than a good investment.
For some reason I decided that my particular path to Mars should include engineering. From the time when I was but a lad I had lavished all my artistic drive on pictures of airplanes and spaceships. The future would certainly need geniuses to design the ever more complex, capable and cool looking vehicles necessary for conquering the solar system. But physics and chemistry were two sides of the same torture. I can do math but I’d rather not; in fact, I “rather notted” myself to a D in geometry. Hint: you need geometry to get to Wawa. You need way more geometry to find your way to another planet.
More examples would be fun but I think the point has been made. Two things are necessary for a vision to become a reality. First, you need… a vision! A dream. How many people even make it to that entry level position? Life is just something that kinda happens, you know? If I happen to find a girl I like I guess we could live together or maybe get married if we get around to it or something. If it doesn’t work out, well that’s just something that “happens” too. I’m kind of interested in X, Y or Z so I guess I could go to college and take some classes in those things. Unless I lose interest. Then I’ll take something else. Or not. Sure I need a job. Everybody does. I’m kinda good at this or that; maybe it’ll pay enough so I can get stuff I like and go out now and then.
Is it too obvious to point out that if you aim at nothing you can’t miss? This isn’t about laziness or work ethic or the state of the economy. It’s about cultivating imagination and passion, which are truly the fuel and oxidizer of life. “Without a vision, the people perish.” Without a vision your life perishes before your eyes.
The second thing required is the commitment to do whatever it takes. Sure, my little story does not seem so inspiring in this regard but just keep your shirt on and keep reading, ok? “Do whatever it takes” naturally conjures visions of U.S. Marines scaling cliffs under intense fire or finishing the marathon with a sprained ankle but what it usually “takes” is patient effort over the long term. For example, a commitment to build a family means intentionally putting yourself in social situations where you’re likely to meet a prospective spouse, cultivating personal industry and financial discipline and arranging your thought life and spiritual priorities. It means resolving to put others ahead of yourself, starting now, before you meet that special someone and have to take the crash course.
In other words, it means doing a lot of uncomfortable, inconvenient things for the sake of an unseen but fervently desired and believed in reward. It means turning yourself into the person who lives the dream.
At this point you may notice that I’m not addressing you from the surface of Mars or the International Space Station or even some little cubicle deep in the bowels of the NASA bureaucracy. So what gives? Who am I to give pep talks about following dreams?
Funny thing about dreams. There’s an endless supply and some are better than others. My own dream of floating for months through the radiation soaked vacuum, landing in a practically airless frozen desert and maybe shaking hands with some strange little green guy was a bust. But that’s ok because it was replaced with something better. Instead of flying jets to maintain my proficiency and keep my reflexes sharp I get to drive over the same route to the same job day after day. Instead of sitting on top of gigantic quantities of rocket fuel waiting for ignition to hopefully not burn all of it at the same time I get to sit in a little gray cube and tap keys. Instead of the rush of solving unforeseen, life threatening problems as me and my crew blast across the cosmos I get the dull pain in the neck of bills, car repairs and the endless mortgage. My life could not be better because all this effort, all this “doing what it takes” is invested in the realization of a vision that is far more expansive, valuable and satisfying than a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.
I get to build a family. I get to participate in the greatest, most significant enterprise in human experience.
You see what I did there? This thing that practically everybody takes for granted is actually a visionary pursuit. And make no mistake. The retreat of the unblinking Christian recognition of the reality made by God is leaving a shrunken desert of a world in its wake. It is surrendering gardens to weeds and drought. It is removing the gravity from an integrated, flourishing world and cheering as the pieces fly off and people hold on to those pieces for dear life, convinced that separation into ever shrinking groups with ever shrinking resources and possibilities is freedom and the purpose of force and civilization is to shrink our world more and more.
It’s a hard place to dream, especially if your particular dream is to follow the irrelevant God in today’s oh-so-advanced world. If God matters and His word is true you’ll just have to dream big in humanity’s little control-freak world. Get your eyes off your navel, let a little natural air and sunshine into the media/peer/classroom/political partisan/tolerance addicted box of your mind and do what it takes.
That’s what I do. I like it.
And I still want to go to Mars. When Elon Musk thumbs his nose at NASA and launches his first crew to the red planet I hope he raffles off a spot for a completely useless, deadweight passenger who just really wants to go. I wouldn’t play because I don’t gamble and I’m old enough to know that my feet belong on terra firma.
But I would dream.