One Small Step

Neil Armstrong descending the ladder on the lu...

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I’m pretty sure it was a Philco. I know I was five and half.

It’d been a typically hot summer day where my best friend Marcus had spent much of it carving our initials in the hot, soft asphalt of East 26th street and floating wooden Popsicle sticks at the gutter river rushing out of the open hydrant. July 20, 1969.

My father calls out from the front window of our ground level apartment. “Jerry!” he shouts, “Come inside.” The tone means either I’ve done something wrong or something important is going on. I hope for the latter.

I come  inside and find my parents, my brothers, and my sister gathered around the Philco (or was it a Dumont?). Neil Armstrong is  just stepping down the ladder of lunar landing module.

I thought of that moment years later when, after deciding to go into work a little late that day, I watched the Challenger first lift off and then explode.

And I thought of it again a few weeks ago as Hugh MacLeod talked about going to watch the last Shuttle take off. When I saw his drawing, his take on what this all meant, I understood a little more about my own experience.

Watching that one small step on the static-ky, shaky black and white TV, with the tinfoil on the antenna to get a slightly better reception, I realized I had been inspired in small ways to live a life that would always push against the limits of my own fears.

Hugh’s “Incredible Times” drawing implicitly challenges me to see more clearly, to articulate more dearly, those folks who inspire me to see the incredible, the unbelievable. Fortunately, I can see it in the everyday.

I see it, for example, in the client who discovers a tumor that needs to be removed from her liver or the friend who’s tumor is in her breast. I see it in the client who–despite the gnawing, aching fear of never being able to be good enough to please a parent–still goes in every day making, as I am wont to say, “incremental progress that is directionally correct.”

We do ourselves a disservice when we look only to the extraordinary for affirmation of the incredible. We set ourselves up, then, to see that our struggles with the pathology of every day are somehow less then. And, of course, that then reinforces our own gnawing aching fears that we are never enough.

It helps to see the incredible inspiration in the man, the artist, whose demons were so ferocious that his only solace was to drink, smoke, and sleep in a kind of hazy denial of life. When that man wakes (albeit with the shock of a fearsome medical diagnosis) and begins the painful process of reclaiming his body, and through that act reclaims his souls…well, when that happens, boy howdy, we do live in incredible times.

So Hugh is right: there is work to be done. But I think the work is not getting people to romanticize our heroes but to see the incredible in the simple act of getting along, of growing up, of becoming more and more wholly, utterly, ourselves.

When Siddhartha woke up and became the Buddha, the awakened one, he didn’t wake to see the triumphant earthly gods and goddesses. He awoke to the utterly breathtaking beauty of the everyday person facing the truth of the pain and fear of life; facing that truth and choosing to move ahead, regardless. That feels like one heck of a small step.

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  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    great post, Jerry. 

    i, too, struggle with this… the always feeling hungry for more, the desire to get more done, the need for great accomplishment… but it’s not without an appreciation for the small wins, the little upticks in momentum, the celebration of one solid day and the smiles of my friends.

    • Anonymous

      It’s such a common challenge, Reece. Just appreciating the miracle of being able to kick ass and build a company in these times, well, crap, that’s just cool.

      • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

        haha i know

        thanks
        *
        *

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  • http://www.feld.com bfeld

    After just being in Paris for the past two weeks, it’s nice to be able to take a deep breath and relax back into myself. I’ve got another week of more of the same in front of me and this was a great way to start it.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks buddy (and I’ll let go of my jealousy of you having been in Paris for two weeks). love and stuff.

  • Kevin Friedman

    Totally great post! We go through life searching the “extraordinary for affirmation of the incredible” when the incredible is right before our very eyes (e.g.) and in our very souls.

    Reminded me of the ending of American Beauty. I think it captures this truth… especially for a Hollywood movie.  :)

    I guess for me the question is two-part:

    Siddhartha had his “awakening”. Some have this “awakening” when confronted with the Truth of life and death. But, to quote the end of American Beauty, some “have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure.”

    So… how do we have (and help others to have) this awakening before the “someday” is so late? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we live every friggin second in the reality of this awakened state?

    • Anonymous

      maybe it’s not up to us to help others awaken? maybe it’s just up to us to work on ourselves and when we’re ready, the teacher will appear.

      all great questions, Kevin. Great stuff.

    • Anonymous

      Loved seeing the American Beauty ending again. Thanks for the link. It made me think of an exercise in advance, a bit like writing one’s own obit – what would you see in the eternal moment, at the end of your life, for which you would be ‘so grateful’, and which would make sense of your possibly, as he says ‘stupid little life’, which you would see was not….?

      • Kevin Friedman

        Exactly… After one is “enlightened” we can see beauty in every single moment of our life. We can find something as mundane as a plastic bag blowing in the wind (or, as Jerry said “the simple act of getting along”) as truly beautiful and something for which we are deeply thankful. I think there is a paradox in Lester referring his “stupid little life”. I think in one sense, when in touch the beauty he describes, you would not things as “seriously” as you might otherwise… but, paradoxically, every moment also becomes incredibly meaningful.

        • Anonymous

          Hey Kevin…not to be dense but why is that a paradox? That is, something can be intrinsically meaningful AND hysterically un-serious…no? ;-)

  • Anonymous

    Yes.
    And a big fan of Hugh’s since you pointed him out a while back. A long delayed flight to Florida 2 years ago was rewarded by watching the shuttle launch form 35,000 feet. WIth a 7 year old. We watched it come up and ditch the booster at our altitude. So much wonder.You bring to mind a favorite Yves Saint Laurent quote I was reminded of in the recent YSL film.”Le rencontre plus important que nous faisons dans la vie c’est avec soi-meme.””The most important encounter we have in life is with ourselves.”To remember we are all doing that alone, and with each other, tips the heaviness back to lightness and wonder. 

    • Anonymous

      Great quote and a fantastic image of watching the shuttle break free of gravity.

      • Anonymous

        It is perhaps not common knowledge but YSL suffered deeply from depression. He struggled through that crushing weight and was able to achieve one of the most important careers in fashion in the 20th C. It wasn’t just clothes, although they were nothing short of stunning artistry, and one collection generated 14,000 drawings. More importantly, he liberated women in dress and changed their lives. He loved women, and felt it was what they deserved.

        So in that light, his perseverance, and the quote matched your post so well.

        • Kevin Friedman

          Thanks for sharing about YSL. I love learning about artists. I guess my working belief is that true art (in any form) is the expressed connection to self. Maybe this is a tangent and a question with a complex answer, but since you brought up YSL’s depression… why does it seem that artists are more susceptible to depression and other emotional issues? Is it because the same connection to self that allows great art to be created also unearths our buried monsters?

          • Anonymous

            I’m an artist (and designer), and I’m not even depressive and it’s still hard. My art school friends and I commiserate, and some of them suffer quite a bit. I talk some of them off the ledge quite often.

            As artists, we sell our vision, ourselves. We are so deeply invested in our product. It’s not quite the same as working for someone else. Rejection cuts deep, and is terribly hard for those ahead of the curve, the ones really pushing the envelope.

            Add to that having to work a day job too, and a culture in the US at least which has a very narrow view of the arts, and you have a problem. Fortunately, artists are very passionate, and will often continue to make what they love in spite of it all. So many talents who aren’t showing their work publicly.

  • http://about.me/nelking Nancy King

    I was the same age, doing the same thing on that night in Los Angeles. My father was filming the screen with his Super 8. I get my curiosity about technology from him. He built two televisions.  

    What a great post to start the week. It’s easy to get lost in the routine and some days feel like they go by with nothing of note to remember. I know that’s not true, I just need to pay more attention. 

  • http://about.me/bryanjwilson Bryan J Wilson

    We hear so much about people’s inability to see the forest for the trees that I think many of us romanticize and idealize this notion of constantly “seeing the big picture.” It is a worthy skill, for sure, but in our pursuit of it, we can easily lose sight of the small steps, as you say. I don’t know how others remind themselves or ground themselves on a day-to-day basis, and am curious to learn how they pull it off. For my part, I’ve always relied on great art (literature, music, film, art, all of it), because all great art inherently touches on the small, the getting along, the everyday. It is indispensable to me.

    • Anonymous

      Hey Bryan…just being playful here…is non-great art also worthy?

      • http://about.me/bryanjwilson Bryan J Wilson

        Ha! I should choose my words more carefully. You are right – but I think everyone has her/his definition of “great” and I welcome them all. The important part is that it speaks to you. Personally, I find that the best stuff is that that reconnects you to the details and illustrates the beauty of the (seemingly) mundane and the usual. That doesn’t make the rest unworthy of course!

        • Anonymous

          I agree completely. That’s not to say there are levels of capacity and different experiences. That’s not to say that distinction doesn’t matter. The point is to find the connection within whatever experience one is having.

  • http://about.me/matthew.trifiro Matthew_Trifiro

    Well done.

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  • Emily Merkle

    wow.